In the 1940s and ’50s, the fledgling Jet Propulsion Laboratory was recruiting “human calculators” for its infant space program—not male mathematicians but an elite group of young women armed with pencil, paper and prodigious math skills to transform rocket design and send the first American satellite into space, opening the Space Age. In Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars, published by Little, Brown and Company, author Nathalia Holt recounts this early history, and these pioneering women, interviewing all who are still around to recall those heady days.
Nathalia Holt will appear on Wednesday, April 20, at Busboys & Poets 5th and K (1025 5th Street NW), at 6:30pm. Meanwhile, you can purchase the book at local bookstores or here or here. You can also connect with Nathalia at www.nathaliaholt.com and follow her on twitter.com/NathaliaHolt.
THE YOUNG WOMAN’S HEART was pounding. Her palms were sweaty as she gripped the pencil. She quickly scribbled down the numbers coming across the Teletype. She had been awake for more than sixteen hours but felt no fatigue. Instead, the experience seemed to be heightening her senses. Behind her she could sense Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, peeking at her graph paper. He stood looking over her shoulder, occasionally sighing. She knew that her every move was being carefully watched, her calculations closely studied. Her work would inform mission control if the first American satellite would be a success or a crushing failure.
Hours earlier, before the satellite had been launched, her boyfriend had wished her luck. He hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that his girlfriend worked late nights as an integral part of the American space program. Before leaving, he gave her a quick kiss. “I love you even if the dang thing falls in the ocean,” he said with a smile.
Now, hours later, the worry that the satellite had crashed into the sea was real. They should have detected its signal by now. With each passing second they were inching closer to catastrophic failure. The numbers raced in from tracking stations across the globe. With each new measurement, she calculated the path of the satellite. If it didn’t hit the right velocity, if it didn’t make its trajectory, America would be left with egg on its face, even further behind the Soviets. Her pride was similarly tied to the fate of the satellite. She’d been here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from its earliest days, helping to design the rockets powering the tube-shaped spacecraft that was no heavier than a toddler. Now the project’s ultimate fate was hers to reveal.
As she plotted a curved line across the orange graph paper, she realized the trajectory was coming close to the point of no return. If the satellite passed this point, it would leave the atmosphere, begin circling the globe, and become the first American space-success story. The future of space exploration rested on this moment. But the young woman tried not to think of this. Instead, she focused on the paper in front of her, with its long lines of numbers. When she calculated that the satellite had left Earth’s atmosphere, the critical juncture, she kept quiet. She made no comment but couldn’t help letting a smile come to her lips.
“Why are you smiling?” Feynman said, his voice irritated as the moments crept by. Until the signal came through in California, after the satellite had completed a spin around Earth, they couldn’t be sure the satellite would stay up. Everyone was on edge as they waited for the confirmation of a few faint beeps, proof that they’d made it.
The pounding of the Teletype filled her ears. The numbers came in. Suddenly the satellite’s signal came through loud and clear, breaking its long silence. She confirmed her calculations before marking down the updated position on the graph paper.
“She made it!” she said triumphantly, twisting around in her seat to see the reaction. Behind her, a room of her colleagues, almost all men, broke into cheers. Ahead of her, the future stretched out, as limitless as space itself.
Excerpted from Rise of the Rocket Girls, copyright ©2016 by Nathalia Holt. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.