How Women ‘Computers’ Transformed early space exploration

Written by Adrienne Sigeti

Here's how female computers and coders changed the face of NASA

It may be hard to believe that computer programming was once considered “woman’s work.” Today women are vastly underrepresented in science and technology-based industries. The number of women in STEM related subjects is so low that toy companies are even creating engineering sets specifically targeted for young girls.

So for those of us who’ve grown up in this reality, it’s hard to imagine a time or place where female programmers were the only people considered appropriate for the job.

Female computer programmers were once hired by JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) and NASA to do the work that men believed was beneath their level of experience. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, women like Janez Lawson and Margie Behrens were brought in to crunch numbers and perform calculations, essentially doing the work that computers do today.

These were women with impeccable grades and degrees from prestigious institutions. Janez Lawson graduated from UCLA in 1952 with straight-As and a degree in chemical engineering. As an African-American woman, Lawson could not find “a single engineering position open to her race or sex, no matter her qualifications.” So she applied to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena where she saw a job opening for a human computer.

Women like Lawson, Finley and Behrens were responsible for programming the computers that would one day be instrumental to America’s involvement in the space race.

The computers being used at the time like the IBM 701 and the Burroughs E101 were not yet reliable or efficient enough to do complex calculations on their own, so female programmers did most of their calculations by hand. However, as technology improved and computers became more reliable, female programmers began to see the advantages of computerized calculations.

In addition to Lawson, women like Sue Finley, NASA’s longest serving female employee, influenced early space exploration. Finley, a Scripps Women’s College graduate, was hired in 1958, eight months before NASA was even created. To this day, Finley still works for NASA. Popular Science explains that she has been involved in almost every major mission since she was hired.

“She was there for the launch of the first American satellite, worked in mission control during the early lunar missions, plotted a route for the Voyagers on their grand tour of the solar system, cheered as balloons loaded with scientific instruments bobbed in the Venusian winds, and landed Mars rovers on the red planet,” says Popular Science.

The Atlantic reveals how sexism in the computer science industry, which forced women into roles such as computers who churned out numbers, actually enabled NASA to achieve such great things during the space race. It was this special relationship between woman and machine that made the landing on the moon even remotely possible.