The rocket girls started out as a group of “computers” at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Using only paper, a pencil, and their minds they were responsible for all the mathematics in the lab.
They went on to become the lab’s first computer programmers and engineers and touched just about every mission you can think of. They may not have been astronauts, but they were groundbreaking adventurers. Many of their names, until recently mostly forgotten, were signed on test missiles.
In 2008, NASA held a gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1. But they neglected to invite the women who worked on the satellite, including the women who had literally been in mission control at the time of the launch.
vermin of the skies
Eleanor Francis Hellin
Eleanor Francis “Glo” Hellin was a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in charge of a program that tracked asteroids that came close to Earth. Like the scientists in “Armageddon” she tracked what used to be called “vermin of the skies” (because they blemished photographs of distant stars).
She had joined Caltech in 1960 as a geologist interested in meteorites and the impact origin of lunar craters. Over time, her interest shifted to studying potential impactors in Earth’s vicinity. When a collision occurred 65 million years ago, it devastated thousands of square miles and hurled enough dust skyward to block sunlight, chill the Earth’s climate, destroy food plants and caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. She believes there is a good chance that an asteroid up to the size of a football field could hit Earth within the next century. She has described “..a city-destroyer. We don’t know when and where that object may be lurking.”
The Minor Planet Center lists Helin among the top discoverers with over 500 asteroids and a dozen comets discovered or co-discovered. Helin was awarded many honors, including NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal and the naming of the minor planet (3267) Glo. More unusually, The USS Helin (NCC-1692), a starship in the Star Trek franchise, was named after her for “having discovered an unprecedented number of asteroids and comets.”
look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog
In 1942, NASA promoted Macie Roberts to be a supervisor in the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. Roberts took her new role to heart and made a decision to hire only women. In Macie Roberts’ words, she would hire any woman who could “look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog.” She decided it would be too difficult to hire men. She felt they would undermine the cohesive nature of her group. She also worried that, at that time, it would be difficult for a man to have a woman as a boss.
Early computers were plagued by unreliability, breakdowns, and overheating. They were passed off to the women, who became responsible for them. IBM offered computer-training courses, and women frequently enrolled. Armed with expertise, they then became some of the first computer programmers in the lab.
When other women became supervisors, they kept Macie’s attitude of hiring women.
no degree necessary
Janez Lawson saw one of the JPL ads “Computers Wanted “and knew that “no degree necessary was a secret code for women can apply.”
Though Janez had a degree in chemical engineering, she knew it would be almost impossible to get a job as an engineer. She was an African American woman at a time when African American men had trouble getting jobs as engineers. She applied to JPL after seeing this ad, realizing this was an opportunity to get her foot in the door. It was a huge deal when she was hired. She was the first African American working in a technical position in the lab. Macie Roberts was the supervisor of the group at the time and vouched for her. She wanted to make sure her education and expertise wouldn’t go to waste, so Janez was one of only two people sent to a special IBM training school.
She certainly had much more to contend with than the other women, not just because of the color of her skin, but also because of the geography of where she lived. She had a lengthy commute from Los Angeles to JPL every day. She was a part of many important missions and went on to become a chemical engineer and enjoy a brilliant career later in life.
multi-billion dollar industry
Barbara Paulson arrived at JPL in 1948. In those days, JPL designed rockets for the U.S. Army. Paulson calculated rocket paths or trajectories. The massive, noisy calculating machine (Frifens) they had couldn’t do logarithms, so she used books that had been calculated by Work Projects Administration people during the Great Depression.” One rocket trajectory would take an entire day.
Paulson also played a role in the historic launch of the JPL-built Explorer 1. On the night of Jan. 31, 1958, she was assigned to the operations center for Explorer 1. She plotted data coming in from the satellite and a network tracking station.
Paulson: Well, Explorer 1 was launched Jan. 31, 1958. And that would’ve been after Sputnik had been launched. … I was asked to graph the results coming back from the Explorer 1 satellite. And I worked most of the night, through the night, at JPL with my mechanical pencil and graph paper and light table that I was working on. And that was all the equipment that I had.
The U.S. space program went on to eventually win the Space Race in 1969 with the landing of the Apollo 11 crew on the Moon. Explorer I marked the beginning of the U.S. using satellites for space science and touched off a multi-billion dollar industry.
if you didn’t give them a chance, they’d never get a chance
Macie Roberts and, later, Helen Ling, both supervisors for the group, hired only women. Their attitude reflected a general cultural belief of the times that some kinds of jobs were more appropriate for women than for men. “Men back then always thought they knew more than you did,” Ling remembers. “So if you hire them under you, they’re uncomfortable, you’re uncomfortable. So I just hired women just out of college. I thought that if you didn’t give them a chance, they’d never get a chance.” She made a point of bringing in women who didn’t have the education to be hired as engineers. She encouraged them to go to night school and watched become engineers.
Ling also liked to rehire women who left JPL. In the 1960s, before the Lab had a family leave policy, women who were having children had to quit. Paulson left to have her first daughter and returned in 1961. Many of the women took advantage of Ling’s phone invitation to return. This was huge because in 1960 only 25% of mothers worked outside the home.
Ling developed software for many missions over the years, including the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, Magellan, Mars Observer and Topex/Poseidon. Charley Kohlhase, the Voyager mission designer didn’t want anyone else to develop his software. Ling retired in 1994 but still keeps in touch with her former colleagues.
can’t add, doesn’t even try
Most of the engineers at that time were men and they were suspicious of computers, because they weren’t very reliable in that era. They tended to overheat. Even in the 1960s, calculations for most NASA missions were done by hand, using paper and pencil. But because of the men’s distrust of computers, these women ended up being the first programmers in the lab and developed this special relationship with one of the computers.
Cora was an IBM 1620. She had her own little alcove off to the side of the women’s offices. On the door were the words “core storage.” The women decide this would not do, so they renamed her “Cora”—and put a list of all their names, including a nameplate that said “Cora” on the door.
With IBM, the 1620 had another nickname: the CADET or Computer with Advanced Economic Technology. The programmers there jokingly said the acronym stood for “Can’t Add, Doesn’t Even Try”.
that’s my number!
One of the first “computers” still works there as NASA’s longest serving woman: Sue Finley. She turns 80 this year and was still working on the Juno mission to Jupiter. Her initial job was performing trajectory computations for rocket launches by hand. She is now a software tester and subsystem engineer.
One of her earliest memories at JPL is the flight of Pioneer 3, launched on Dec. 6, 1958. She was called in to calculate velocities from telemetry data when the digital computer that was supposed to do it failed. “I punched this data into the Frieden [calculator] as Al Hibbs relayed it to me from his telephone connection with the receiving antenna. I went home around 6:00 a.m. after everyone realized that it hadn’t reached escape velocity, so it wasn’t going to leave orbit. My husband was up watching the news. They had a little blackboard with the numbers on it I had calculated. I said ‘that’s my number!’”
She performed many tasks during the next 15 years, but one stands out in her memory – software she helped develop for the Mars Exploration Rover missions. These used a “semaphore-like” communications method during their plunge through the Mars atmosphere. The spacecraft’s transmitter sent back specific tones, or musical notes, by radio after each phase of the descent. Finley’s software received the signals from the DSN and interpreted them so the projects’ engineers would know what was going on.
In her half century at JPL, she has most enjoyed “being part of exploring the universe, space, our solar system.” Finley still enjoys her work, and she has no plans to retire “unless things start to get really boring.”
americas’s first satellite
Barbara “Barby “ Canright
Barby Canright was the first female computer, joining JPL in 1939. Melba, Macie, Virginia, Freeman and Barby were responsible for calculating the potential of rocket propellants. The calculations couldn’t be done quickly since they were all done by hand. Analyzing one rocket firing could take a week or more for the human computers. Barbie liked to stack the 6-8 notebooks for each experiment on her desk. At the end of the experiment, she’d clear the notebooks off.
Barby plotted the path of America’s first satellite. She had already helped to design the rockets powering the tube-shaped spacecraft. She was well aware that if her calculations fell short of perfection, it would spell America’s loss in the Space Race with the Soviets.
“When she calculated that the satellite had left Earth’s atmosphere, the critical juncture, she kept quiet… “that’s my number!” 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.”