When Natalia Holt, scientific researcher and writer, and her husband were searching for a name for their baby daughter, they googled the name Eleanor Frances. Among the names, she became intrigued with Eleanor Francis Helin, a scientist who had worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for over three decades, starting in the 1960s. Who was this woman and were there other women working at NASA during this time? Two births emerged: baby daughter Eleanor, and a research project about the women behind the rocket science that sent Americans into space.
Today there are many innovations which are taken for granted: digitization, hand-held devices that contain chunks of our personal lives and are able to access the world, and more notably news of space stations where astronauts come and go, and the rockets that propel them are part of everyday life. Not that long ago, these were the dreams of science fiction and fantasy writers, but there were many engineers and scientists who had visions of making space travel a reality, and with rare exception almost all of these dreamers were men who worked on the actual projects. There were women, who were not engineers but had strong math skills and were hired as human calculators during the 1940s and 1950s at JPL. These women were not doing simple sums, but complex calculations which produced pages of measurements, and numerous calculation tables vital to, ". . . rocketed heavy bombers over the Pacific, launched America's first satellite, guided lunar missions and planetary exploration." When rocket science and space travel became a reality, the human calculators were essential to all that took place before, during and after the launches.
Holt covers the 1940s through the 1970s, beginning with a portrait of the Suicide Squad, a group of irrepressible scientists who would launch their own rockets from the relatively empty arroyo in Pasadena. There was Caltech and the nascent Jet Propulsion Lab developing the support and innovation for future space exploration. Portraits of the people who worked at JPL reveal their passion for the work which precluded and overshadowed any type of 9 to 5 job schedule. For the most part there was comaraderie, team spirit, and the interpersonal feelings and excitement which permeated all the projects, and created enthusiastic motivation for the staff working on earth-bound jobs to create successful space-projected missions
Not all U.S. engineers and scientists supported rocketry and there were schisms in the ether spheres of institutions such as Caltech and MIT. These two technical institutions had an east-coast-west-coast difference of opinion. There were MIT scientists who scoffed at exploring rocketry and dismissed it as science fiction nonsense, while the Caltech scientists were experimenting with designs and tests in order to fulfill the dream and prove the naysayers wrong.
While she dealt with the problems of motherhood and a career, Holt often wondered about those rocket girls and how they managed their lives. She wanted her future daughter, and other young women, not to be hampered by any type of actual or inherent limitations, instead to be inspired by the accomplishments of other women. Holt’s curiosity and determination motivated her to research and write the forgotten history of women whose contributions made space travel possible, and as a reminder to young girls and young women to dream big to achieve big.