Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rise Of The Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt, c. 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled US, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars.
Nathalia Holt
DD: 629.1 HOL

The story of "the human computers" at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. 

January 1958: Launch Day

Part I: 1940s
The women
  • Barby Canright
  • Macie Roberts
  • Barbara Lewis (later Paulson)
Part II: 1950s
The women
  • Barbara Lewis (later Paulson)  
  • Janez Lawson 
  • Helen Yee Chow (later Ling)
  • Susan Finley
Part III: 1960s
The women
  • Barbara Paulson
  • Helen Ling
  • Susan Finley
  • Sylvia Lundy (later Miller)
Part IV: 1970s - Today
The women
  • Barbara Paulson
  • Helen Ling
  • Susan Finley
  • Sylvia Miller
Epilogue -- the group below traveled to JPL for a "reunion" of sorts
  • Barbara Paulson
  • Joanie Jordan
  • Kathryn Thuleen
  • Georgia Dvornychenko
  • Virginia Anderson
  • Janet Davis
  • Helen Ling
  • taught her son BASIC and FORTRAN
  • Sue Finley
  • still working on DSN
  • NASA's longest-serving woman
  • Sylvia Miller
  • Victoria Wang
  • Margie Brunn
  • Caroline Norman
  • Lydia Shen
  • Linda Lee
  • Marie Crowley
  • Nancy Key
  • Sylvia Lundy (later Miller) 

  • the book is based mostly on first-person interviews conducted by the author, 2011 - 2015
  • where possible, events reported confirmed by archival material
Chapter 1: Launch Day
  • Begins in 1939
  • Suicide Squad: began with three young men. Out of Pasadena; tinkering with homemade rockets, while one or two were students at Caltech. Worked in the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory.
  • Barby, incredibly bright, fitting in classes at Occidental College.
  • 1939: National Academy of Sciences awards a grant to the Suicide Squad, now known as the GALCIT (Guggenhiem Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology).
  • first year: $1,000
  • second year: $10,000
  • US government's first investment in rocket research
  • in deference to Army Air Corps, they changed their name to Air Corps Jet Propulsion Research Project
  • the group approached Richard and Barby Canright about being the mathematicians for the group
  • the group needed a place to work: Arroyo Seco -- a few miles outside Pasadena (1936)
  • avoided the word "rocket"
  • August, 1941
  • JATO: jet-assisted-take-off -- six little rockets on a prop plane
  • four months later a rocket-powered plane would be needed
  • as I read that I had the feeling this was as important as what the Wright Bros did at Kitty Hawk
  • December, 1941
  • Barby: thousands of computations -- thrust-to-weight calculations
  • it took just a year for the JPL rockets to boost the Doublas A-20A bomber into the air
  • Frank and von Karman set up a company: Aerojet
  • started experimenting with torpedoes but could not use that word; only the US Navy allowed to use that word
  • von Karman leaves in 1944 to launch the air force's Scientific Advisory Group
  • Frank took over
  • JATO tests in Muro, CA -- now Edwards AFB
  • the computers: four women and one man; their prized possession -- one Friden calculator
  • up to that time, only the slide ruler
  • rocket science and now they knew they had to concentrate on propellants
  • propellant (not fuel): fuel + oxidizer (an element that is able to accept an electron, like oxygen)
  • because there is no oxygen in space, rockets have to carry their own oxidizer
  • the calculation the engineers and computers most interested in: specific impulse -- the change in force that accumulates as a rocket uses fuel; specific impulse indicates roughly how much momentum builds up as the propellant is thrown out the back of the rocket; this calculation is the simplest way to compare the effectiveness of different propellants
  • Barbie and Macie (page 33)
  • Macie promoted as top computer; because of her, all future computers would be female
  • Pasadena Junior College
Chapter 2: Headed West
  • Helen Yee Ling Chow: Hawaiian teen-ager; Pearl Harbor; full scholarship, Univ of Notre Dame; only female to major in mathematics; her brother worked at JPL; learns about computers, knows that it would be a perfect fit for her sister
  • Barbara Lewis; another girl interested in math; Ohio; her mother goes out to CA at her request; felt at ease when interviewed by Macie
  • Susan Greene (m. Pete Finley), southern Californian; 5 years old in 1941; hired as a computer at Convair; was programming but that word was not used; commute was awful; thought of JPL just five minutes from home; married, pregnant, first baby died at two days of age

Part II


Barbara Lewis (later Paulson)
Janez Lawson
Helen Yee Chow (later Ling)
Susan Finley

Chapter 3: Rockets Rising

1955: JPL, after 10 years, sending the Corporal missile from JPL area to the White Sands Proving Ground in southern New Mexico, just 60 miles north of Mexican border.

Corporal: project had begun in the lat 1940s; a guided-missile system; unlike anything JPL had attempted; Army wanted this; Barbara's first project at JPL

First Corporal rocket, October, 1945, edge of space; the highest a rocket had ever flown; known as the WAC Corporal; WAC: without altitude control since it had no guidance system, and also for Women's Army Corps since it was smaller than other missiles given military-sounding names

Using very dangerous liquid propellants

Liquid propellants let to engines shaking, exploding, unpredictable

Barbara was 19 years old at the time

Thrust provided by mixture of aniline and nitric acid; Barbara did all the calculations; it took a full day of calculating for one trajectory

These were hypergolic propellants: a combination of fuel and oxidant that would ignite on contact; same propellant class that launched Apollo

The little sister, WAC Corporal was particularly interesting to Barbara because it was being launched as a two-stage rocket; the slim American rocket would sit atop the Nazi V-2; the V-2 could target a city more than 200 miles away

The idea of combining the power of the V-2 with the high-flying WAC Corporal was ingenious; the combination, they called the Bumper WAC

Pencil, paper, slide rule and Friden calculator; the Friden could not calculate logarithms (wow) so she had to manually use a text

While they worked out the little sister, Corporal was launched, spring, 1947; first test of a large missile; considered first all-American; everyone was surprised when it soared to 129,000 feet before reaching its target 60 miles away

A description of the sex-crazed male engineers

A description of the all-women computers hired / led by Macie

January, 1949: needed to find new testing location; missiles falling into Mexico

Cocoa Beach, FL; the range eventually became part of the Space Coast; rural Brevard County

Close to the equator, rockets got a boost from the rotational speed of Earth; more powerful at equator than anywhere else;

January, 1949: little sister -- reached 242 miles above Earth; greatest velocity and highest altitude any man-made object had ever achieved

Page 73: Operation Paperclip mentioned

1955: US deported a Chinese engineer working at JPL; he was one of the founders of JPL; spying never substantiated; became the Father of Chinese Rocketry

Foreshadowing: Frank, founder of JPL will have to watch from afar (not sure what that last paragraph is saying; Barbara Lewis will become a beauty queen

Chapter 4: Miss Guided Missile

JPL's Miss Guided Missile Contest
between 1950 and 1953, JPL budget, from $5 million to $11 million

Macie looking for as many qualified women as she could find

Janez Lawson: chemical engineering, UCLA; most popular girl in her class but also the lone girl in many of her classes (chemistry and math)

Macie's ad: did not require advanced experience or degrees: Janez saw this as code for a position open to women; this would be a secret back door to getting a job as an engineer, at the time closed to women

How interesting: late in the story we learn she was African-American -- a huge obstacle. Her father had been the first African-American city council member of Santa Monica

New contractor to manufacture and test the rockets: Firestone Tire and Rubber Company

Quality control a huge problem

JPL continued to work on Corporal, but now moving on to Sergeant: more sophisticated guidance system

The Sergeant: the solution seems to rest in a forgotten WW II engineering marvel, page 84

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