• The story of a group of young women at NASA’ JPL (Photos - NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      The story of a group of young women at NASA’ JPL (Photos – NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      The Sierra Madre Library hosts many community events every year. One of the delightful annual events is ‘’One Book, One City,’’ which occurs during the month of February. A thought-provoking book is chosen by a committee, and is presented to the folks of Sierra Madre as a book of interest for reading and discussion.

      By Jean Sudbury

      ‘’Rise of the Rocket Girls,’’ written by Nathalia Holt, was chosen as the 2017 book.  Hosted by the Sierra Madre Library, Ms. Holt gave a talk of the book she had written, and how it was developed. That is the beginning of the love story.

      ‘’Rise of the Rocket Girls’’ is a national bestseller, and it brilliantly tells the story of women who have taken us to the boundaries of our galaxy and beyond. These women are the computers of JPL.

      Rocket Girls, Suicide Squad and Caltech

      Dreams are usually included in love stories. The dream illustrated in this story is that of expanding horizons. The Rocket Girls, or the ‘’Computers,’’ as they were named, aligned with the Suicide Squad as students at Caltech back in the 1930s. The mathematically gifted and logical women almost kept the reckless experimentation of the men under control. The mission of the Suicide Squad was to create rockets which could escape our gravity force and fly to the moon. The passion, creativity and practicality of this amazing group of Caltech students launched us into the aerospace industry with their mastermind computations and reckless imaginations. This group became an extended family.

      What if…

      JPL's campus in Pasadena (Photo - jpl.nasa.gov).

      JPL’s campus in Pasadena (Photo – jpl.nasa.gov).

      The Suicide Squad received a grant from the National Academy of Sciences to further develop their rockets. Their welcome at Caltech was worn a bit thin because of the experiment-induced damage to the campus. They needed a bigger space to launch their rockets. In an arroyo NW of Caltech, space was available.  The squad developed JPL there, and it is in the same spot today. JPL became the perfect place to develop the dream shared by the Computers and the Suicide Squad. What if they could break the barriers and travel through space? What could be learned from such exploration?

      Human computers

      During the Depression era, some people worked for the U.S. Government as computers. Payment for their services was funded through the Works Protection Administration, introduced by FDR. Of 450 computers, 76 of them were women. The multiple rows of numbers and equations they wrote down and solved were eventually published by the Columbia University Press as the Mathematical Table Project series. Their logarithms, trigonometry and exponential functions led earthlings to galactic exploration.

      In the isolated Arroyo

      What if a rocket could be designed to travel beyond the gravitational pull of the Earth? JPL became the perfect spot to design such a rocket plane. The Suicide Squad created a research home in the isolated arroyo. Test pits were dug, and more creative scientists and engineers were welcomed into the family. Rocket development was still considered fringe science, so these engineers and computers were deemed mad scientists to some observers. Funding the project was a grand dilemma. The cold war was getting hotter, and the U.S. Government preferred spending money on weapons to financing space exploration.  Nonetheless, the computers and engineers of JPL managed to stoke their dream and make it stronger. Albert Einstein took interest in their projects. Years later, Carl Sagan joined in.

      Keeping the dream alive

      Despite the obstacles, the dream of space exploration remained alive. The major hindrance continued to be funding. Eugene Shoemaker introduced Astrogeology to the equation. This saved money by using solar energy.  Mr. Shoemaker helped to produce amazing images from the moon, using energy from the sun.

      On February 20, 1965, Ranger 8 pummeled near the Sea of Tranquility on Mars. Despite the crash landing, thousands of high resolution photos and videos were sent to Earth. Meanwhile, JPL and APOLLO created Project Surveyor. The first soft landing on the moon was a success, sending a flawless live broadcast back to earth.

      Women engineers

      The human computers, as they were called then, worked at JPL and helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations, circa 1953 (Photo - NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      The human computers, as they were called then, worked at JPL and helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations, circa 1953 (Photo – NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      At this time, some of the original computers came back to work at JPL, after having taken time off to create families of their own. On July 20, 1969, Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldren walked on the moon. The Rocket Girls’ computations created the world’s first two stage rocket, which put these first men on the moon. Step by step, their dream was being fulfilled.

      In 1969, the computers were still hand plotting and manually calculating the spacecraft trajectories. They were preparing for The Grand Tour scheduled for the late 70s, when the planets would be properly aligned to enable further energy saving space exploration. Nixon mercilessly slashed the budget for the project. However, JPL would not be duped. The next step was to figure out how to fly to Saturn. A breakthrough happened at JPL at this time. The job description of the ‘’computers’’ became ‘’engineers.’’ It was the first time the women joined the ranks of the men, who had that title from the beginning.

      In 1972, a photo was sent from Apollo 17 to the Earth. This was the last manned lunar mission. The photo, titled Blue Marble, has been shared by many.

      In 1973, Mariner 10 was launched. She circled around and passed Venus, sending back hauntingly gorgeous images. The ship flew by Mercury a month later. The images of the tiny planet showed it to be beautifully cratered. A new mission had begun, titled MJS 77, a spacecraft traveling to Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. The dreams were still grand. Why stop at Saturn? Sylvia Miller designed a trajectory which would allow the spaceship to waltz between planets. It was a grand waltz, using the gravitational pull of the planets for energy. The programs picked the course and the flight technicians sent signals to the spaceships.

      The Surveyor Mission was launched in December, 1998, and January, 1999. The Mars Communication Observer and the Mars Polar Lander found water under the south polar white cap. NASA cancelled 2001 missions because of malfunctions and communication device problems between companies. The computers of JPL studied the malfunctions and created a successful new Mars Rover program. Coincidentally, all the engineers on the table were women.


      Some of the women working on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates the Curiosity Mars rover, at the Mars Yard used for rover testing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (Photo - NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      Some of the women working on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project, which built and operates the Curiosity Mars rover, at the Mars Yard used for rover testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (Photo – NASA/JPL/Caltech).

      Fast forward to 2017: Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, who are Mars Rovers, send daily data to Earth from Mars. The codes written by Sylvia, Helen, Margie, Sue, Barbara, and their colleagues, are used in spacecraft engineering, climate studies, and navigation. The legacy of the Rocket Girls continues and will expand with the cosmos. Who knows where it will lead us?  The love story continues. The Earth, a pale blue dot in the universe, is where it all began.

      There is so much more to this story. It was written with love and fascination of history, the cosmos, nature, feminine energy, and creativity. Please go to this website and browse. You can also buy the book here. It is well worth the time and energy.

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