tv Women and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory CSPAN June 29, 2019 9:10pm-10:01pm EDT
this 15 minute talk is part of the lecture series hosted by the university of mary washington. >> now, to introduce tonight's speaker nathalia holt. having studied at humboldt state university and having received a phd from the university of , she is alsofornia conducted research at jpl caltech library and at harvard. she is a founder at massachusetts general hospital and m.i.t.. her first book is called cured, the people who defeated hiv. she has been published in the new york times, los angeles times and time magazine. in 2016 she published the work
that is the basic of her talk tonight, entitled "rise of the rocket girls: the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to mars." that work was a bestseller and was widely praised by critics, including one who described it as immersive, evocative, and superbly written. -- readable. her narrative should be required reading. another called it a marvelous that when neil armstrong made his giant leap for mankind, there was womankind in the control room. it is a pleasure to welcome to the university of mary washington nathalia holt. [applause]
nathalia: thank you so much. i really appreciate you having me here tonight and i am excited to talk to you about rocket girls. this is a group of pioneers whose careers shaped nasa and really made it what it is today. before i get into their history, i want to share with you a small slice of my own history, because i came to this book in a very unusual way. i started in 2010. my husband and i had just moved from california to boston and i was pregnant. we were expecting our first baby. but we could not agree on the name. we argued over names. we made long lists of baby names and nothing seemed right. and then my husband, out of the blue, suggested the name eleanor francis. when i first heard the name, i thought, i am not sure.
it sounds old-fashioned. so i did what parents do and i googled the name. the first person to come up was eleanor francis helene. my browser was full of this picture of her and she accepted award at nasa. when i saw this picture, i was just stunned. i had no idea that women worked at nasa at the time, much less as scientists. i knew i had to learn more. what i found was that she was not alone. she was one of a large group of women who worked at the jet propulsion laboratory in pasadena, california. jpl has a fascinating history in and of itself. it was founded by a group that was called the suicide squad. they received this name because of the very dangerous
experiments they performed on the caltech campus, some of them were students and others were just young people who liked to explode things. so they did a lot of that on campus. they set off an explosion in the engineering building. they also blasted off the side him him him of the building, raining bricks down on students below. it was at this point that the administrators at caltech said, this is enough. you have to leave. this is where they went. this isolated canyon outside pasadena, where they could set off rockets. it is important to note at this time in history, the late 1930's, rocket science is considered a fringe science. no serious scientist or engineer
would ever aspire to being a him him would ever aspire to being a rocket scientist. their professors would tell them what they were trying to do was impossible. you would never be able to send a rocket into space. there was a woman who was part of this suicide squad and her name was barbie canwright. she worked as a computer. long before computers look like this, for most of human history, a computer meant simply a person who computes. laboratories would hire large numbers of computers to perform all the calculations for the experiments. this is one of the earliest known computers, he was an 18th-century french mathematician and astronomer. he was working on calculating the return of haley's comet. he had been brought onto the project to work as a computer and he was working with a woman named nicole.
they spent long hours calculating the gravitational pull of the planets to determine an exact date for the return of the comet. in 1756, they presented their result to the scientific community. but only his name was on the paper. the female computer was left off. this would really be the first in a long line of female computers not being acknowledged for their work. this is a group of computers who worked in the 1800s at the harvard observatory. they were responsible for analyzing a vast amount of data coming into the observatory. they made a star classification system and created maps of the sky. they were hired by a man named charles edward pickering and he said the reason he hired women as computers was because they were more detail oriented, better suited to this type of work.
but the real reason may be that they could be paid a lot less. they worked six days a week and made $.25 to $.50 an hour. the number of computers in the united states got a boost in 1938 as part of the works progress administration, when the u.s. government hired 450 computers. 76 of them were women. their supervisor was a woman. her name was gertrude blanche and she had a phd in mathematics. they worked on something special. they were creating the math tables project, which is a 28 volume set of logarithms and trigonometry that would one day form the first steps into space. the first person to work with these books at the jpl was barbie canwrigth. -- canwright.
this is her and her husband. they were the first two computers to be working at the lab. they were working on the jet-assisted takeoff. the idea was that they and the suicide squad were strapping on the homemade rockets onto the side of aircraft and the plan was they could adopt the technology to one day power bombers over oceans. after many failures and some explosions, they had some success. in 1939, they received a grant from the u.s. government and officially formed the lab. with the new money, richard was promoted to the position of engineer. barbie, with the same experience and education, was not. this is how it was. men were engineers. women were computers. now the lab needed to hire a few more computers, so they hired
two women and one man. one of the women was very important to the future of the lab. her name was macy roberts. in 1940, she was named head of the computing section. this was a big deal at the time. there were no other female heads. so she took responsibility seriously, especially as the lab was now expanding and they were hiring more computers. she interviewed men and women for the job of computers. she decided she would only hire women. the reason is because she felt if she hired a man, they would not listen to her simply because she was a woman. so macy hired a lot of women. they came from all over the country. all types of backgrounds and experience levels. the woman in the center was jeanette, the first
african-american hired in the technical division in the lab. she had a bachelors in chemical engineering from ucla. today, she would be hired as an engineer. back then, she was hired as a computer. these women worked with paper and pencil and bulky machines called calculators that, despite their size, do surprisingly little. early models did addition and subtraction. later models could do square roots. the women were calculating the early potential of rocket propellers and trajectories of missiles. they were working on a 49 foot behemoth and a smaller surface to surface one. but the real love was space exploration.
in the 1950's, the women start adapting the design for the sergeant missile into a rocket called puberty -- called jupiter. they took their calculations and created a scaled-down version called the baby sergeant. they took 12 of the baby sergeant's and place them in a big spinning tub and the women decided to make it spinning so it would balance the thrust of all the different rockets. they placed two of the spinning tops on top of a large rocket and at the peak was a single baby sergeant whose aim was to launch the world's first satellite. in 1956, they launched jupiter c. the women in the control room that night told me how exciting it was. that rocket broke all records for the time.
speed records, altitude records, it rose 3335 miles into the air. but there was no satellite at the peak. it was way down with sandbags. the reason is because the eisenhower administration had not given them the go-ahead to launch a satellite. so you can imagine how frustrated they were, less than one month later, when the soviet union launched sputnik. the women i talked to are still angry about this. it is very frustrating. because they know given the opportunities, they could have launched before them. it is not until a second sputnik is launched that eisenhower finally gives the group the go-ahead. so december 31, 1958, the group that jpl assembles to launch explorer one.
many women were part of the launch. one was barbara polson. she is the one responsible for calculating the trajectory of the satellite as it leaves earth. to do this, she sits at a light table with paper and pencil. she is doing this by hand. standing over her shoulder are richard, the famous physicist, and the president of caltech. everyone in the room is waiting on her calculations to find out if this mission will be a success. when she calculates that yes, explorer 1 has made it and america has its first satellite, the room erupted in celebration. it is an incredible moment. it is also the birth of nasa. after that, everything changes. the women leave military design behind and are focused on space. things are also changing for barbara.
macy roberts is now retiring and barbara, who has worked there for a decade, has been promoted to supervisor of the computing section. she is also 30 years old and about to get married and about to start a family. in 1960, only 25% of mothers worked outside the home. but barbara decides she loves her job, she feels her work is too important and she definitely wants to stay. so you can imagine how shocked she is when, at eight months pregnant, the love administrators learn she is expecting and immediately fire her. they tell her she is an insurance liability and it does not matter that she is supervisor and has done so much for the lab, she has to pack up and leave that day. she is devastated.
she goes home to her husband and cries, i thought i was worth more than that. fortunately, barbara is able to come back and have a 45 year career at nasa and she is able to do so thanks to helen lange, who you can see standing up in the second row. she was born in china. she ended up living through many terrors during world war ii. she came to the united states for college and in 1953 she was hired by macy roberts to work at jpl. and right away, everyone realizes helen is special. she is an incredibly gifted mathematician and becomes the go to person that, when they have a really difficult problem, all of the engineers want her to be working with them. so it is natural for her to take over the role of supervisor after barbara has been fired. but, helen is like barbara. 30 years old. just gotten married and about to start a family.
so she decides to learn from barbara's example and she hides her pregnancy for as long as she can. when it is time to have the baby, because there is no maternity leave at this time, she combines all her sick and vacation time so she can take some months off. so she is able to retain her supervisor position. as she comes back to work, she decides it is not enough just for her to be there is a working mom. she wants to bring back other mothers. so she ends up calling barbara and many others and asking them if they want to come back. by doing this, helen creates a culture of working motherhood in the lab that simply did not exist before her. this is all happening at a very interesting time in the history
of technology. computers are just now in the early 1960's really coming into use at nasa. nasa was a little later than other interest is -- industries in adopting computers. at most nasa centers, once the electronic computers came in, the people who worked as human computers were largely fired. i have a few examples of this. on the top is a group of human computers at langley, not far from here. you have probably heard the story of the african-american computers who worked at langley in the brilliantly told book, hidden figures, which is also a movie. in the bottom is a group from the armstrong flight research center. in both cases, once ibm computers entered in the 60's, almost all of the women were fired.
this happened across the country. they did not happen at the jpl. instead, the women were trained as the first computer programmers. they were the ones who worked on ibm computers like this. this group of women at jpl wrote the very first program that sent american spacecraft to the moon and planets. and they do it on cards like this. in my research i was really curious as to why jpl was so different from other nasa centers. i found that at most nasa centers, they were formed for military basis so the culture was very different than at jpl, which was formed by the suicide squad. because of its association with caltech, it only had a quirky academic field. it still feels very different.
despite working in such a progressive place, the women were still subject to gender norms of the day and one that i found most surprising with the beauty contests. the lab held misguided missile, later renamed the queen of outer space. women from all over the lab would compete in these contests. my favorite beauty contest story is in 1964. as part of the ranger series missions. the goal was to send the first camera to the moon in order to take the first close-up images of the lunar surface and inform possible landing sites for apollo. by 1964, this was proving impossible.
there had been five failed missions and there was a feeling that if we cannot even send a camera to the moon, how will we ever get astronauts there? so the director of the laboratory at ranger six flew out to d.c. and sat with president johnson on an open phone line to mission control back at the lab in pasadena and they heard a live feed of ranger six as it approached the lunar surface. you can imagine what this moment is like. the room is quiet. it is intense. everyone is waiting. and suddenly they hear a voice. bring on avon, and walk in fragrant beauty. everyone looks around at each other. where is this voice coming from? surely this is not coming from the moon. then they realize that in pasadena they switched feeds with the queen of outer space contest. this is an incredibly embarrassing moment.
even worse is when they learned that ranger six had also failed. what i found interesting in my him research was that the first successes in the space raised were not to the moon, but to the planets. mariner two launched in 1962 and was the world's first interplanetary spacecraft. it flew by venus and gave us the first look at temperature and heat and wind on the planet. at the same time in 1964, we were struggling to get a camera to the moon but we were able to launch mariner four to mars with him and a camera. mariner 4 mission was very exciting. it was the first time we had -- first time we had
ever sent a camera to another planet. there was a real feeling, even amongst scientists at the time, that this would give us the first look at life on mars. it took 8.5 hours for the data from the photographs to be beamed back to earth. even after, it would take many more hours for the electronic computers to resolve the images and create real photographs. but for the group at jpl, they could not wait. they were too excited to see what would be on the photographs. so as soon as the data started coming back from mariner 4, they started printing out the data in strips and pasted the strips on a wall in the lab and created a color by numbers system for the data where they assigned each range of data its own color and then the group in the lab began coloring in the blanks and coloring in each number. at this point, the media relations people at the lab were
getting pretty nervous because they did not want all of the press to see this image. but as often happens, the media did see it and it was this image, hand-painted and pastels by the group at jpl, that was the first image of mars first shown on tv. the first look at the red planet for everyone on earth. you could argue that it is somewhat more beautiful than the real photographs, certainly more colorful. despite these trips to venus and mars, we did eventually get to the moon. ranger 7 made it to the lunar surface and took pictures of the sea of tranquility, which paved the way for apollo 11 in 1969. really, the women's fingerprints are all over the mission, not only because of these reconnaissance pictures, but because of the rocket and
propellant they helped develop. even the first words, one small step, was made possible because of the deep space network the women labored to build. something else remarkable happened in 1969. the women finally became engineers. this was a big deal. not only did they get a pay raise, but they felt they were finally getting the recognition they deserved. this is helen lane, still supervisor of the group at this time. she decides as exciting as it is for them to be engineers, she wants to bring in more female engineers into her group. this is not so easy to do. that is because at this time, most engineering schools are still closed to women. caltech for example did not open its doors to women until 1970. even then, it only admitted three female students.
so helen devises a plan to work around this. she begins seeking out women that have bachelor degrees in math and computer science. she hires them in the lab, trains them, and sends them to a local night school for engineering. by doing this, she is able to fill the lab with female engineers who otherwise would not have gotten the door. it is a good thing she does, because these female engineers are needed for a very exciting mission that the lab is about to embark on called the grand tour. this mission took advantage of a one in 175 year alignment of the planet in order to send a spacecraft to the outer planets. the group at jpl was dreaming of looking at planets that no spacecraft had gone to before.
jupiter, saturn, uranus, neptune, pluto. in 1970, nasa experienced massive budget cuts and the grand tour was canceled. the group at jpl felt this was unacceptable. they had to take advantage of this moment. so a small group of engineers, him him including sylvia miller who had been hired and trained by helen, came in one weekend with the goal of saving the grand tour. they came up with a trajectory that used something called gravity assistance. they used the gravitational pull of the planets to act like a slingshot, sending a spacecraft farther and farther into space. by doing so, they were able to save costs by cutting down on the size of the spacecraft and how much fuel they needed to use. it was this trajectory that the voyagers followed in 1977, when they were launched. they went all the way to the outer planets.
not pluto, that was later. they not only changed text books for the time, but they gave us all of these beautiful images. the voyagers are still going. voyager 1 and 2013 is the first man-made object to have left our solar system. it was not just made by men. the women's careers have often -- have also kept going. in 1980, they began working on magellan, a return to venus. they worked on a return to jupiter and a study of jupiter's moons, including finding saltwater. in the 1990's, the same group of women began sending rovers to mars. by the late 1990's, after careers of 40 years to 50 years at nasa, most of the group was
ready to retire. in 2013, i held a reunion of this group of women at the jpl and it was such a remarkable experience to get to be in the lab with them and share their -- hear their memories firsthand. i was surprised how much of their history had been forgotten by nasa. one is the story of sue finley, who was hired in 1958 by macy him and roberts before nasa was officially formed. she still works there today. she is nasa's longest-serving female employee. in 2004, nasa made a new administrative rule that if you do not hold an advanced degree, you cannot have the title of engineer. so that title that sue worked so hard to get in 1969 was taken away from her and she was demoted. despite this, even though she went to school at a time when women were not generally allowed
in engineering schools, she loves her job and working at jpl and does not have any plans to retire. i wrote this book to inspire the next generation of science and engineers. we are seeing a particular lack of women in science. degrees andlor's jupiter signs were awarded to women, and today, that number is at 16%. that half of all women and up leaving midcareer. in addition to that, we see a stagnating interest in stem.
read on top of our male high you can seeates and it over the past two decades those levels have been climbing and are now at 45% where's and blue on the bottom for female high school graduates, those numbers have not changed much in the past two decades. they are at 15%. fortunately, there are a lot of groups looking to change this. you have wonderful organizations that are trying to get young women interested in computers and science early on. you also have universities that are making significant changes. this is data from harvey mudd college in california. they found that 50% of bachelor degrees were awarded to .omen they decided to make a few changes.
first, they changed the introductory classes so that anyone could get started. they then made research opportunities available sooner to their students. they also began sending students to the hopper conference in computing. students, what we see is that half of their graduates are now women. so we know there are changes to make on an institutional level to make a big difference. there are other bright spots as well. 2016 marks the first year that nasa's astronaut class was half with. and at jpl -- half women. and at jpl, there are more women employed at any level than at any necessary to. -- van at any nasa center. and this is due to barbara, helen, and sue, and the women who played -- pave the way.
>> this is my daughter. we did name her eleanor francis. for a woman in part who sadly i never had the chance to meet. eleanor frances passed away a year before i started my research. but i hope that her story and that of other women will one day in my daughter. so thank you so much for listening, i really appreciate it. thank you for having me here. ♪ [applause] >> thank you. we are going to take some questions now. megan is filling in for kelly tonight. we will take as many questions as we can. if you will raise her hand and asked her questions succinctly to will take as many as we can.
where is my man? bill is to start us off. go ahead. on on jpl, and i have never been there. by the way, bill, uva was the last state university to allow women in graduate programs. >> you would have to remind me of that. >> but i have been to huntsville in the space center. that was werner von braun. yes, in huntsville there was also a large group of female computers. they, too, had shorter careers because they ended up mostly losing their jobs. -- but it is incredible
how many centers there are across the country and what role they played in these missions. >> questions, questions. them -- stunned them. this relates to the infographics that you showed that indicated that about half of the women left their stem jobs. where did they go? >> many women leaving academia in the sciences will often find role that are sort of outside what we normally think of in terms of science careers. so many of them will go into teaching and other roles like that. reallym not sure that we have a great idea of where they are all going and how we can keep women in these fields. i don't feel that has been well
addressed at all. do you think it was lack of advancement that is driving them out? why are they leaving? >> it is hard for me to answer that. there are many reasons why someone would leave midcareer. part of that may be that there are family considerations that happen. it can be difficult being in academia, as many of you know. and it is not always easy to balance roles for many of these women leaving it career. it is a time when they do have young children. but i am not well-versed enough in the research, and i'm sure there are many looking into this. who are going into this and trying to look at the reasons why people leave and ways we can retain the. -- them. >> thank you. >> building on that question, i am wondering, are there any
studies that have been done or are being done as to why young women are not going into the stem program? >> what is very compelling is that data from harvey mudd. and they're not the only college to have done this word there are other colleges that have taken a similar approach. even though is that you have the stagnating interest , there are things to do the college level to bring women back into these majors. it is not simply because they are not interested in computers or stem fields. are concrete actions that can bring women back into majors that used to be more plentiful.
>> i don't know if you ever bullock's, sandra grandfather was a german rocket scientist i have her book. i don't know if the russians got him. anything?ver heard her mother used to teach music here. she was an opera singer. >> i am afraid i don't know any of that history. it sounds very interesting. >> back there? so, basically, i personally think we should start getting , into, especially girls stem fields as soon as possible, like the younger the better.
so how young would you suggest we start doing that, you know? is a good question and i am with you in spirit. an educator, but i do know from giving talks at a lot of schools that there is something compelling about science. it does not have to be just for girls. young people in general fund the topics interesting. and especially if you have a great teacher, it will make all the difference in the world. ton if we are not trying drive young boys or girls into science careers, there is value in getting them excited about science at an early age.
>> i just wanted to say, i have a daughter got her undergraduate degree from uva and airspace and in and went on to get her degree. in networks and that satellites. now they woman who actually work with her there, there are a lot .f people in that field of course, we can get more women , with a surprise amount of people who were throwing my daughter, one of the reasons she became interested in aerospace engineering was star trek and star wars. her father was an engineer and we spent a lot of dinners .atching star trek
so shows like that that he can young people's interest in the space is a catalyst that helps promote them. there are a lot of people out there that we don't really know about. >> that is a good point, and you must be proud of your daughter. have toured spacex and blue origin and some of these private spaceflight companies. i have been astounded by how many with an icy. in some ways, their percentages are actually higher in what you have a nasa. -- ask nasa. -- at nasa. many of them are going the google playbook of offering a loss to their employees. bluew that when i toyed origin, they offer day care and have a lot of great benefits. as i think that is a wonderful way to attract men and women and hopefully make it easier for a lot of young people to stay in the field.
you have done a very fine job of researching a complex area of technology. i'm wondering what your academic experience has been in science? >> i have a phd in molecular biology. i have to, i don't know a woman in science who has not had some kind of negative experience. really is just par for the course and that can be said for most anyone who has endured graduate school. but i have been fortunate enough to work with wonderful advisors career.lty in my as i'm very fortunate to have experiences. . for graduate school, i had a female adviser who really felt passionate about supporting her students. when you havemuch
people, especially other women, who are willing. to invest in their students. >> i wanted to thank you very much for the lecture and i love your book, my son gave it to me. i am an aerospace engineer, my husband and i are both aerospace engineers. we raised our three children, we took them to spatial launches in size museums. all three of them turned out to be liberal arts majors. >> [laughter] but they are liberal arts majors with a really good background in science and. -- and math. but i really appreciate you bringing that to my attention. i started studying engineering 1974, only two years after my college allowed
women to take engineering. so it was trailblazers like those people who allowed me to do that. i only worked for four years as an engineer in the army for i stayed home. now i teach math and science in middle school. as much as we can do, everybody has their own choices. but it is star like this that can inspire people. -- stories like this that can inspire people, so thank you very much. >> aw, thank you. >> a question back here. >> i actually had one question and the comments that goes with it. on the graph you displayed, i saw a stark drop in interest in both genders displayed around 2004. do you know if there is a reason for that? >> not sure. i don't know what the reason might be. it is interesting, though. i am curious, too, what that might be. >> i'm also very familiar with
the discrimination against women in engineering. parents went to tufts and graduated with degrees in engineering. at larousse and lucky -- lockheed martin. ago, she was applying to jobs in the mechanical engineering field and she was told there were two things wrong with her, her agent or sex. her sex. that was outright discrimination for a woman with a bachelor's a masters in mechanical engineering. she is still working for lockheed martin to this day and has no intention of leaving.
>> it is kind of interesting, this experience. it is different than many other nasa centers there were collies with the men they work with. that is not say that were not some bad things that happened, but what i found in my research is that the men at jpl did support this group of women. and we see that in their early publications. 1960's,the 1950's and they are including the female computers on their publication. itt was very, very rare ended up making a big difference for their careers later on. >> question back here? >> it ended up making a big difference for their careers later i was we engineers, dided their jobs actually change or to their titles just change? >> the titles and salaries changed but the job really did not. >> another question? engineers, did their jobs actually change or to -- hi, i actually majored in
computer science. i have two degrees in computer science. 2004,ng on what she was a it was difficult to get jobs around that time. it is right after 9/11, they were not hiring people like that, i don't know what. -- why. . i think there may have been a bit of a softening of the economy, so that could be one -- why, be why she was -- yeah. i am not good at this. yeah . [laughter] >> anymore questions? one. is >> this glass ceiling you spoke of them a gender discrimination, is this a national or international problem?
does the soviet union have the same problem? do the women have a problem or is this an american thing? >> this is such a great question and i wish i had the answer for you. i'm particularly curious myself of the roles of women were at the soviet union because certainly thought they were far advanced of us in terms of getting women into space. women may haveif had somewhat of a larger role in their space program, but i don't know the answer and i am curious, it is a great question. >> go ahead, last one. to ask what you thought about public interest in what. goes on in space. . space. goes on in
i remember when sputnik went up and our whole neighborhood was out there. now, when i hear things, it is amazing. this whole crew floating around, printing what they need. there is very little public awareness, to me, there does not seem to be excitement and i wondered if you had anything to say about that. >> i think that is true. people say tohat me well, nasa is not doing anything interesting right now. and it is very frustrating because, of course, there are these exciting missions so it is a source of frustration. i'm certain it must be those working at nasa right now. fortunately, there are some projects such as mars rovers that will always garner perhaps a little more attention than they should because they are so exciting.
general, it is easy for our new cycle to be swept up in so many other stories that perhaps the stories of space expiration could linger around a little longer. it is amazing how we are able to launch these spacecrafts, you know there may not be anyone writing and them that are able to go off and take these beautiful pictures of jupiter, saturn, and send them back to earth. >> before we say a final thank you, let me call your attention to what is coming up this thursday. and there we go. , a topic that many of you are very interested in, i'm sure. i hope you'll come back next thursday for our next great presentation. let's give a final thank you to nathalia holt. [laughter]
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