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Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars Hardcover – April 5, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2016: Women's history buffs rejoice! Wonderfully told and intrinsically captivating, this is the story about the elite group of women in the 40s and 50s who broke gender and science boundaries to transform rocket design and lay the groundwork for U.S. space travel. Not only did I geek out on the incredible look into the early days of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but I also fell in love with these women who quite possibly invented the pant suit, and were vital to America's space travel. --Penny Mann
From School Library Journal
We take so much for granted now, but in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, women who wanted a career other than homemaker were mostly limited to becoming teachers, nurses, or secretaries, and there was no such thing as maternity leave. However, a few smart young women who loved math were hired to be human computers for the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. What we think of as computers now hadn't been invented yet. These women spent their days writing equations and computing numbers with pencils, paper, and slide rules to give the male engineers the information they needed to build rockets, satellites, and space shuttles. This selection will surprise and thrill teens not only because it honors the crucial work of these female scientists but also because it shows their individual humanity—their favorite fashions, their personal relationships—within the broader context of the international space race, changes in U.S. society brought about by feminism and integration, and transformations in American daily life brought about by evolving technology. Teen book clubs will enjoy discussing the pros and cons of all-female work groups, the costs and benefits of space exploration, and more. Readers will want to search online for information about the Juno probe, mentioned in the "1970s-Today" section as orbiting Jupiter in July 2016. The extensive notes section details the many first-person interviews conducted by the author, plus the archival materials she used. VERDICT An engaging, inspiring offering that will appeal to fans of history, science, and feminism.—Hope Baugh, Carmel Clay Public Library, Carmel, IN
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The author’s description of the Voyager mission shows some serious misunderstanding. Contrary to what the book says, this mission was originally planned in the early ’60’s. It was indeed called the Grand Tour (of the outer planets), but by the time Congress was done with its design, it had been whittled down to Jupiter and Saturn, thus the name “MJS” (Mariner Jupiter Saturn). By 1977 the mission had been set for nearly a decade. It was NOT frantically recalculated at the last minute as the book describes.
Another point is the way the book describes the women at JPL as being the saviors of all the projects. The missions at JPL skipped gender. They were teams. Just as you would find the male Chuck Lawson managing the mathematics group, you would find the female Helen Ling managing the mission visualization group. Emphasizing one class over another does a disservice to everybody. Unlike the author, I was actually in the middle of JPL for years, and I’ll state blatantly that everyone I knew there was dedicated to and contributed to their missions irrespective of everything else.
I didn't bother reading the rest of the book.
Or herstory, shall I say, or ourstory, or perhaps just history as it should be -- because Holt's deeply researched, skillfully written text highlights precisely how fully women have been erased from taught history. Women's erasure from and oppression within STEAM fields has been happening since the inception of those fields, and continues to happen. Thankfully, women who go ahead and fight to live the lives they choose have existed just as long.
Holt traces the lives of some of the most prominent female aeronautical scientists, who navigated the cosmos in tandem with navigating institutionalized misogyny --- and made tremendous strides to conquer both. Barbara Lewis (later Paulson), Janez Lawson, Helen Yee Chow (later Ling), Susan Finley and Susan Lundy each deserve their names to be just as recognizable as Buzz Aldrin’s or Carl Sagan’s. They compose the core of the “rocket girls,” the female scientists and engineers whose hard work, calculations and designs got us to the moon, Mars, and set the stage for the beyond. Many of them did not even have so much as a higher education degree to their name, largely because of the sexist structures of the recent past that still tarnish our present, limiting expectations and opportunities for women. What they did have was a love for the field, previously unrecognized talents for math and science, and a wanderlust that spanned distances greater than our atmosphere.
"Holt’s narrative is superbly readable. The text spans the 1940s through today, and the trajectory is as clearly plotted as her subjects’ spaceflight designs."
Holt’s narrative is superbly readable. The text spans the 1940s through today, and the trajectory is as clearly plotted as her subjects’ spaceflight designs. Her extensive research illuminates each step of the path of female scientists within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), from its inception until now. She delves into issues of sexist hiring, gendered expectations, dress codes, the lack of maternity leave, working while pregnant, keeping your job after the baby, etc. She also deals with racism in the industry, and addresses how Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor affected the space race and JPL.
Within her clear historical and cultural analysis, Holt consistently tracks how being a woman shaped the experiences of these scientists. She’s never heavy-handed, only cleanly honest about how social and institutional sexism shaped their lives and how they managed to work and thrive within it --- while also setting important and powerful precedents for women in STEM today.
The book begins with two quotes. One is a beautiful excerpt from Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post’s “To Sail Beyond the Sun,” emphasizing how science, in all its technical intricacies, is ultimately just curiosity --- castles in the sky we hope to live in, that we are ever building steps to, creating technology that will outlive us in the hopes that one day, as a species, we get there. The other is simply “I did not come to NASA to make history,” spoken by Sally Ride. None of the women Holt features took their jobs for the money, and certainly not for the recognition. They did it out of love of the science, and to build those steps towards those incredible, celestial castles. They succeeded in making the unknowable just a bit more tangible and in bringing us that much closer to understanding the darknesses far beyond the naked eye.
Now, though, it’s time to bring their names out of the abyss. Sally Ride did make history, and so did each and every one of these women. Their accomplishments among the heavens need to be recognized here on this planet, which ultimately is Holt’s mission. When we teach about the space race, we must teach the female computers who were computing the data that successfully sent human-made artifacts into space, entirely by hand. We must teach that it wasn’t too long ago --- well within the lifetimes of most of these women --- that a “computer” was simply “one who computes” and that many, many of them were not men.
For Holt’s featured women at JPL, their one real recourse to keep their jobs and perform them as expertly as they did was to work with the other female computers. This group of women not only became lifelong friends, they continued to inspire and look out for each other professionally, providing solidarity and institutional support. We can and should be doing better now --- STEAM and STEM fields need to recognize that women have always been here. We need to be acknowledged and treated with equality, both in present work environments and when accomplishments are documented for future generations.
RISE OF THE ROCKET GIRLS is brought even further to life by including original pictures and diagrams. Holt’s poignant narrative should be required reading for anyone who studies aeronautics, history or women’s rights.
Reviewed by Maya Gittelman