Newsmaker: Nathalia Holt

Author tells stories of NASA's earliest women scientists and mathematicians

March 1, 2016

Nathalia Holt, author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.
Nathalia Holt, author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars.

“That’s one small step for man,” astronaut Neil Armstrong famously began. But have you considered the women behind that first lunar landing?

Nathalia Holt gives a voice to the seldom-recognized female mathematicians and scientists who shaped NASA in its earliest years and beyond, in her new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Little, Brown & Company, April 2016).

American Libraries recently spoke with Holt, herself a microbiologist and former fellow at the Ragon Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the inspiration, science, and libraries behind her book.

What motivated you to write Rise of the Rocket Girls?

NATHALIA HOLT: This book I came across in an unexpected way. I was having a baby and my husband and I were trying to figure out names. He came up with Eleanor, and we decided to pick Frances as a middle name. I googled it—I wanted to make sure there were no serial killers with that name—and I came across Eleanor Francis Helin. She was an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and there was this beautiful photograph of her, bouffant hair, holding this award. Because of her, I started researching all of the women who worked at JPL in the 1950s and 1960s.

From the earliest days of rocket research, women were involved. These women had incredibly long careers—one of them is still there today—where they worked on an amazing number of projects and became the first computer engineers. It was a story that I just couldn’t stop researching, these unsung heroes of NASA that made an incredible amount of discovery and exploration possible.

Do you look for stories that give science a more human face?

It is something that I am passionate about. I think it’s important to see the human side of scientists and see the surprising ways that personal stories affect the science. We kind of think of science as this research that takes away the human factor, that looks at things through this objective lens, but that is very rarely the case. Usually the discoveries and breakthrough research are very much affected by the people who are doing it and the personalities that they have.

Your first book, Cured, draws from the biological sciences. As a biologist, was it a challenge covering math and physics in this book?

It was a fun challenge. Growing up, I loved hearing about these wonderful space explorations. Then to learn about it from a group of women who actually did it and how the math works was fascinating. I talked to many other scientists, physicists, and computer scientists who were able to help with the manuscript because I’m not personally an expert in it. I think I was able to present it in a way that makes it engaging and easy to understand.

Have you spent a lot of time in libraries, either in your career or researching these books?

I have spent a lot of time in libraries. I’ve never appreciated them as well as I have researching Rocket Girls because I had so many librarians and archivists that helped me find documents and gave me perspective that I was missing. I was overwhelmed by how much time and support many of these librarians and archivists gave me. It’s amazing, the expertise that these people have and are willing to share with you. I certainly couldn’t have written the book without them.

Is there a particular library where you did research for this book?

I did quite a bit at the archives at JPL and the library at Caltech. They were very helpful. Then there’s one here that’s part of Harvard University [Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America]. They have lots of historical women’s documents, a number of diaries. They were really wonderful.

It’s been stated in the media that women are underrepresented in STEM education and careers. Do you think your book is an important addition to this conversation?

There has been coverage of how the proportion of women getting computer science degrees is actually dropping. What I really like about Rocket Girls is that the stories have a really elegant answer for how to support women in science. [These women] were trying to balance careers with having families at a time when it was not common to do so. They were able to do it for a myriad of reasons that are part of their experience, and that I think is a lesson for how to support women in science today.

Do you have plans to write more books, or are you waiting for another spontaneous inspiration? There’s something about book writing that’s addictive. I can’t believe that anyone lets me do this. I hope there are more science books in my future because I really love it.