Around the middle of the book “The Rise of the Rocket Girls”, Natalia Holt cites the fascinating stories of 1960s-era women struggling between taking time to take care of their newborns and wanting to continue working in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help NASA begin outer space.
One was told that pregnant women could not be an “insurance reason” and she was immediately dismissed (she was later restored). Another decided to return to work only seven weeks after delivery. Fortunately, her mother lived nearby and was able to take care of the boy.
In the era of small maternity leave, when a small minority (only 25 percent) of women with small children worked, the women described in “Rocket girls” did not only appear to be the pioneers of the Solar System. They were also pioneers of a more tolerant climate for women in the field of science today, although many of them still say that further progress is needed.
"The JPL Institutional Policy (Jet Propulsion Laboratory - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is key," Holt told Discovery News. Women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s were mainly in the area of “computers”, where employees planned the trajectories of spacecraft and other complex maneuvers.
"It was not about work from 9 to 5 at the table; it was about getting a job. They could come early when they needed to. Leave early and pick up their children. They turned the work hours into their lives."
Holt, who is a newcomer to describing space exploration, first came across this topic when she was pregnant with herself in 2010. She and her husband decided on the name "Eleanor Francis" and googled the name to "make sure she was not a killer or something like that."
Holt found the profile of Elianora Francis Helin, an American astronomer who discovered or jointly discovered about 900 asteroids, as well as several comets. Helin has worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology for over 30 years.
Holt said it was "very surprising to find this group of women, and that so little is known about them." Archival photographs from the JPL showed these women sitting at tables without showing who it was, Holt said. Holt began to monitor the work of all computers, and said she was lucky that many of them were still alive, and that the group was cohesive. Helene, unfortunately, died a year before Holt initiated her search.
The pages of the Holt book are full of familiar landmarks for people who read about space exploration. You will see the names of Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and the astronauts of Mercury, who began the American human exploration of outer space. There is also a mini-history of the first American space probes from the Ranger series, which explored the Solar System, the Moon, Mariner groups, who studied Mars, Venus and Mercury, spacecraft Voyager, which went beyond the solar system, and even the program of the space shuttle, which began to fly in the 1980s. But what is less explored in the literature and highlighted in Holt’s book are the personal sacrifices of the JPL staff made to help NASA explore the solar system. She also talks about the contribution of women to the most recognized missions, such as Apollo 11. Even one of the most fundamental achievements - using a multi-stage rocket to get to the moon - is rooted in women's work, in particular, calculations for the WAC bumper (the first two-stage rocket in the world .)
Holt especially praises Barbara Paulson, a woman noted in NASA's official “computer” reports, for her research assistance. While Holt couldn’t find Paulson 11 times, 12 attempts were successful. “Without her keen memory, quick-wittedness and benevolent attitude, I could never write this book,” she said. The book reveals a lot about the family sacrifices of these women, how they helped NASA reach the stars, as well as their long-term contribution to women who continue to work at JPL today.