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Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the…

by Nathalia Holt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6282928,998 (3.87)38
During World War Il, when the brand-new minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate jet velocities and plot missile trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women--known as "computers"--who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design and helped bring about America's first ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons--their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the computers worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond. Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our solar system. For the first time, this book tells the stories of these women who charted a course not only for the future of space exploration but also for the prospects of female scientists. Based on extensive research and interviews with the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science, illuminating both where we've been and the far reaches of where we're heading.--Adapted from dust jacket.… (more)
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» See also 38 mentions

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A history of women at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), from its origins in the 1940s, through many decades of exploring the solar system, up to the present day (or very nearly: the book was published in 2016). For much of this time, most of the women there were employed as computers, calculating complex engineering equations and rocket trajectories by hand with pencil and paper. If you've seen the movie Hidden Figures, or read the book it's based on, this is the same type of job the women featured there were doing elsewhere at NASA. (And, yes, not all of the women at JPL where white, either.) Later on, as electronic computers began to replace human ones, they became computer programmers, as well. And by now, of course, there are many female engineers working there, although still not in the same numbers as the men.

I wasn't always exactly engaged by the writing in this particular volume. It wanders back and forth between being a straightforward history and trying to go for a "narrative nonfiction" approach of dramatizing things from various women's POV, and the two things are grafted rather awkwardly together. (This seems to be a common structure in non-fiction these days, and too few writers, in my opinion, pull it off especially gracefully.) The subject matter is certainly interesting, though. Holt covers a lot of the space missions fairly quickly and not in immense depth, but as a general overview of what JPL has done in its history, it works well enough. And the lives and careers of these women provide a really vivid illustration of what life was like for working women in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when equally qualified men and women were seldom hired for the same positions and a woman could be summarily fired for getting pregnant. These are worthwhile stories to hear and remember, and even if I have slightly mixed feelings about the writing here, I am unambiguously glad to see these intelligent, dedicated women getting the recognition they deserve. ( )
  bragan | Nov 17, 2021 |
After reading the book Hidden Figures I became interested in reading more about women in the fields of science and technology. I found the book to be very fascinating and well written. It was a good read and more like narrative fiction than like straight non-fiction which made for an enjoyable and quick read. After finishing it I had a great desire to learn more about women in the science fields. ( )
  KateKat11 | Sep 24, 2021 |
After watching the movie, Hidden Figures, I became more curious about the role women played in NASA and space exploration. As part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge, the challenge encouraged me to read a book about diversity. I chose a book about the women computers of NASA. This book is Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. I found the book to be quite interesting. Not only did it focus on the role of women as they calculated our way into the heavens, but it provided a detailed behind the scenes account of our journey into space. Read more ( )
  skrabut | Sep 2, 2020 |
I really liked this. It was a relatively quick read, but it was super interesting to learn about the progression of both the space missions and the tech the women used. ( )
  bookbrig | Aug 5, 2020 |
I wanted this book to be stronger and more inspiring than it turned out to be.
Not being mathematically inclined by nature, I nonetheless love to read about numbers and computation from a safe distance (allowing me to understand the structure, function, and ultimate beauty of number systems without actually having to struggle through the practical calculations themselves). In addition, I have always enjoyed stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that feature strong female protagonists with unique and vivid voices. So when I picked up Nathalia Holt's book, I was hoping for something akin to the BBC's, The Bletchley Circle, a fictional story of female code-breakers in the 1950's. Instead I found a rather dry, journalistic approach to what should be a fascinating story of how real women with unique computational skills overcame both their own and their contemporary society's expectations to become major players in the struggles and ultimate success of the American space program.
What I gained from the book was a bare-bones knowledge of the facts behind the rise of this country's attempts to explore space and overcome the incredible technological and computational barriers that stood in the way. For anyone who remembers having to learn how to use a slide rule in school, this book recalls that age with clarity if not very much excitement. As a young teen when mankind first step foot on the Moon, I remember sitting in front of the television set recording the coverage on a reel to reel Wollensak, enthralled with the enormity of the vision and skills that were playing out in real time. It was truly heady stuff and I find myself wishing now that I had known more of the background facts back then.
But even now, with more of the facts revealed, what I miss are the unique and individual voices of the women who grappled with an unknown and potentially dangerous future armed with little more than their own natural computational skills and a whole lot of courage. These voices are only whispers in this book when I want them to be anthems. The author tells us about these events and these pioneering women without truly allowing them to speak for themselves so that by the end of the book, I really didn't feel that I had gotten to know any of these women who I would have liked to know very well. As pioneers, they deserve to be recognized for their courage. As practical mathematicians they deserve to be applauded for their unique skills. As women in a man's world back in a time when social roles were far more rigid and predetermined than today, they deserve to be seen as distinct individuals, each with a lively and colorful personality that allows us to feel and savor the magnitude of their personal and professional achievements.
Unfortunately, this book remains at the altitude of factual generalities, rarely allowing us a proximity close enough to perceive the really interesting stories behind those facts. Hopefully that book will still be written.
( )
  TomGale | Apr 18, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nathalia Holtprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bennett, ErinNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
I did not come to NASA to make history. - Sally Ride
Why do we, the solar sails, fragile as a feather's frond, silently seek to sail so far? We walk the air from here to planet out beyond Because we're more than fond of life and what we are. - Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post - To Sail Beyond the Sun
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For Larkin and our little rocket girls, Eleanor and Philippa
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The young woman's heart was pounding.
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During World War Il, when the brand-new minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate jet velocities and plot missile trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women--known as "computers"--who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design and helped bring about America's first ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons--their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the computers worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond. Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our solar system. For the first time, this book tells the stories of these women who charted a course not only for the future of space exploration but also for the prospects of female scientists. Based on extensive research and interviews with the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science, illuminating both where we've been and the far reaches of where we're heading.--Adapted from dust jacket.

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