Women Took Us To The Stars
By Karen and Erica
How to get ahead in the rocket business? “Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.” In the 1950's, this was the advice to young women mathematicians from their slightly older woman boss at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and later NASA. These women, largely uncredited, took her advice and paved our way to the stars.
How in the world did it happen? It happened because one woman, whose second career began at the JPL, decided to hire only women as “computers,” humans who did complex math by hand, with pencil and paper. Who were these women? They were generally in their late teens or early twenties, living in America as the Second World War was raging, and long before feminism, Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine became agents of change for working girls. They were good at math, but accepted that they would never have real careers as men might, and as they married and bore children they struggled to continue to work in a world where maternity leave had not been invented.
At the JPL, these women became sisters, forming a warm and mutually supportive community of mathematicians. They were also amazing scientists and engineers. They came up with the fundamental mathematics underpinning the invention of rockets, and jet planes, first as weapons and then for missions to the moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond.
Their story is moving, and inspiring. It is a potent reminder of the power of the sisterhood, especially among women of different generations. Complex problems and women. A proven combination.