Author tells story of 'Rocket Girls' who worked as 'human computers' at JPL

At a time when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory hired people to plot data for engineers using pencil and paper, women were hired to do the work. Sylvia Miller was among them.

In 1968, Miller was one of the last "human computers" hired by JPL in a role that would mark the beginning of her 40-year career at the lab.

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Her contributions to space exploration and those of her fellow female colleagues have been recounted in Nathalia Holt's new book, "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars."

Miller will join Holt for an appearance at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Buena Vista Library, 300 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank.

At her home in Arcadia last week, Miller, 70, recalled the early part of her career when she worked for Helen Ling, who was intent on hiring women to compute data.

During her earliest days there, Miller would draw "fancy French curves" on graph paper to plot spacecraft trajectories or use IBM 1620 machines.

"When 'computer' tended to mean the electronic ones, they often called us computresses," she said. "But more often, we were known as 'Helen's Girls.' Everybody knew 'Helen's Girls' because all the engineers came to us for support for programming."

Miller herself grew particularly fond of math in grade school.

"Math was always fun. I just liked puzzles. When I got home from school, I always did that homework first. Once you do it, it's over with. The reading, it could take me forever."

She majored in math at Douglass College in New Jersey before moving to California with her first husband, who pursued graduate school at Caltech. It was there that someone tipped Miller off that Ling was hiring.

Ling supervised the human computers at JPL and was known for hiring brilliant women who did not have degrees in engineering, Holt said.

After the women began working for Ling, they would often enroll in night school to earn engineering degrees, as Miller did.

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One of Miller's favorite experiences at JPL was her role in designing a survey to map infrared sources for IRAS, or the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which was launched in 1983 to capture images of the celestial sky.

The telescope needed to be kept very cold, at almost absolute zero, or heat from the spacecraft could interfere with data collection, Miller said. After 11 months, the cryogen that cooled the telescope and sensors ran out, prompting an end to the mission.

Scientists received data from that mission that they have been studying ever since, but when it ended one month shorter than planned, many speculated about potential missed discoveries.

"If we had had 12 months, then we could have covered the extra gap," Miller said. "Everybody was very disappointed. Everybody was saying, 'Somewhere in that hole is the 10th planet.'"

Among her many other missions and projects, Miller also supervised trajectory analysts for JPL's Galileo and Cassini missions.

"I loved working for JPL," she said.

Holt stumbled upon the women who worked for JPL in its early years in 2010 after she searched online for "Eleanor Frances," which she and her husband wanted to name their daughter.

The author saw a photograph of Eleanor Francis Helin, an astronomer who worked for JPL at a time when Holt didn't realize women were working for NASA.

"I just wanted to learn as much as I could," Holt said. She visited the archives at JPL and turned up names and photographs of women who worked at the lab beginning in the 1940s.

Holt tracked over a dozen women to conduct phone interviews with them for her book. She learned that the women who worked for the lab for 40 or 50 years carried a lifetime of untold stories.

"They were very excited to have someone finally asking about their part in these missions," Holt said.

That was certainly true for Miller.

"I am so thankful to Natalia. This story was about to be lost, and she has saved it from anonymity," Miller said.

For more information about the presentation on Monday, call (818) 238-5620.

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Kelly Corrigan, kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

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