Book review: ‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’

An account of the role that women have played in the development of rockets redresses a major imbalance in the history of this area of engineering.

As a profession, rocketry is about as macho as it comes. It’s all about size, power, thrust and phallic symbols of the Space Race, is it not? And if you asked any space historian to list the rocket pioneers, they’d say Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, Oberth, von Braun...all men of course. As with many technical subjects, it takes a good deal more research to discover the role of women in rocket development and this is where author Nathalia Holt steps in to redress the balance in ‘Rise of the Rocket Girls’, out this month in paperback.

Meeting the spec of its subtitle – ‘The Women who Propelled us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars’ – this book tells the story of the women who “charted a course not only for the future of space exploration but also for the prospects of female scientists”. In fact, the story will ring bells for anyone familiar with the World War II code-breaking world of Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine. When the newly-formed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) needed mathematicians “to calculate jet velocities and plot missile trajectories”, the book tells us, it “recruited an elite group of women known as human computers”.

The author’s preface provides a very personal perspective of the book’s genesis: having decided to name her daughter Eleanor Francis, she plugged the names in a search engine and was “surprised to find, buried in history, an Eleanor Francis Helin”, a former JPL scientist tasked with tracking near-Earth asteroids. Long story short: a daughter and a book were born.

Based on archival research and dozens of interviews with surviving ‘Rocket Girls’, the book is divided into four main sections: 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s onwards. This logical, historical structure makes it easy to assimilate, while the author’s narrative style brings the characters to life. It may read like a novel, but the text is supported by 30 pages of chapter notes and a 13-page index.

Although the introductory chapter has a little too much ‘scene-setting imagery’ of lipstick, heels and stockings, it starts to get interesting when “the Friden” mechanical calculator is introduced. “Looking at the complex contraption now”, writes the author, “it’s hard to believe that it was able to perform only simple functions”. In fact, she says, the “computers” had to do everything else by hand and “their fingers became rough with calluses from gripping a pencil eight hours a day”. The author goes on to explain the difference between fuel and propellant (rocket propellant being composed of both fuel and oxidiser) and the meaning of specific impulse (a key figure-of-merit for rocket efficiency), thus embedding technology in the story.

There is always a danger with attempts to ‘correct history’ by concentrating on the role of a previously overlooked minority – in this case women - that they’ll be dismissed as ‘positive discrimination’, or worse. Unfortunately, the historically male-dominated culture of science and technology has made this discrimination necessary. Some of the photos in the book show the ‘computers’ at their desks with their ‘computers’, while – in a sign of the times - others depict “Miss Guided Missile 1955” and “Queen of Outer Space 1964”. These two aspects of the Rocket Girls’ story are hard to reconcile today, but this book’s definitely a notch on the tailfin for girl power.

Rise of the Rocket Girls is published in paperback by Bay Back Books (£13.99, ISBN 9780316338905) and in hardback by Little, Brown & Co (£25.00, ISBN 9781785210860)

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