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Nathalia Holt - Rise of Rocket Girls—The Unsung Heroes of NASA

Program Date: October 25, 2017

Nathalia Holt

In the 1940s, an elite team of mathematicians and scientists started working on a project that would carry the U.S. into space, then on to the moon and Mars. They would eventually become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or JPL), but here’s what made them so unusual: Many of the people who charted the course to space exploration were women.

Nathalia Holt tells their story in her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt is a microbiologist and author of Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV but someone who became interested in these teams of female computers in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

“In a time before the digital devices that we’re used to today, it was humans that were doing the calculations,” she says. “And so you needed these teams of people — many of whom were women, especially during World War II — and they were responsible for the math.” Today, Holt says, “There is hardly a mission that you can find in NASA that these women haven’t touched.”

Holt’s education and career include work at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Tulane University. Her research as a science writer took place at the JPL archives, the Caltech Library, and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard.