The women who plotted, coded and calculated the courses of America’s first rockets
Starting the 1940s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) needed entire rooms for computing the rocket and eventually satellite trajectories at the center of their projects. These complex calculations couldn’t be done on a pocket-sized computer like we have today, and so the number-crunchers for missions like the Explorer I satellite needed desks, chairs, phones, paper, pencils, and probably a few pots of coffee to operate. The computers in question weren’t electronic, but were actually a pool of female high-school graduates, calculating and plotting critical data for many of the twentieth century’s biggest engineering accomplishments.
Writing out the rocket science
Before JPL was looking to space, women like Barbara Paulson were plotting data for the US Army’s rocket trajectories. Mechanical calculators weren’t up to the job in 1948, and so calculations were made with graph paper, reference books and Paulson’s brain. While plotting the course of a rocket would normally be a day’s work at the office, more sensitive projects didn’t always give her that much breathing room to get the job done. On January 31st, 1958, Explorer I data had to be graphed in one night, as the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite had put the United States behind in the space race, meaning mission controllers were scrambling to catch up.
As technology progressed, so did the expectations for women at JPL. While more calculations could be done with electricity and silicon, male engineers didn’t consider programming those computers to be worth their time. So rather than calculate data themselves, women like Sue Finley learned the language FORTRAN and wrote the code that would help us plot courses beyond the Earth’s orbit. When computers could finally assist with plotting, these programmers weren’t obsolete, instead adding data visualizations to their skill set.
Working to retain these women’s work
These jobs were obviously not the usual form of employment for women in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In the beginning, this work was passed off from male engineers because it was considered beneath them, and while many of these women started at JPL without more than a high school diploma, they were obviously not easily replaced. Female managers recognized the skill and cohesion of these teams, and took what were innovative steps to retain talent, including making efforts to rehire women who had quit to start families, as there was no form of maternity leave at the time. While today many people lament how programming and math have become overly dominated by men, many of these women were never permanently pushed out of JPL, staying on to develop and design software on current missions.
My second grader asked: Was the woman who wrote the code for the Moon missions famous?
While it’s understandable to use fame as a metric for importance, that wasn’t the case for Margaret Hamilton, the lead flight software engineer for the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Hamilton was well regarded by her colleagues, but a hard sell for the general public, whom would often get stuck on the idea of her being a working mother, much less figuring out what on earth “software” even was. Since that time, Hamilton has helped push the idea of “software engineering,” been formally lauded by NASA, and help found two companies. It just took some time for the rest of the world to start catching up.
Source: Women Made Early Inroads at JPL by Erik Conway, Jet Propulsion Laboratory