Meet Barbara Paulson, Iowa’s Rocket Girl

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  Iowa is home to many important figures, but there is one who many people may not yet know. One Iowa woman wanted to reach a little higher when launching her career, becoming one of the nation's first space pioneers.

Channel 13's Ed Wilson sat down with Barbara Paulson to hear the remarkable story of Iowa's Rocket Girl.

In Pasadena, California, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was looking for bright people to design rockets and mathematically chart the course of jets in outer space. Barbara Paulson was one of a handful of young ladies chosen to help blaze the first path into space exploration.

Barbara says,"I had just finished high school and my sister persuaded my mom to move us from Ohio to Pasadena. My sister was working there already. That was in 1947. And they were hiring girls right out of high school. I think we had one lady in the 1950s who did theoretical work. She had her math degree."

Barbara was from Ohio. Her father had passed away and her mother wanted her four girls to go to college, and Barbara had a love of math.

"Starting in the 9th grade, I took four years of Latin and four years of math," she said. "My sisters took a different path. They took short hand. But I did not want to be a secretary."

At that time, the women working for the Jet Propulsion Lab were called computers.

"Would you like to hear what I did? I worked on the Corporal rocket. I computed trajectory for the rocket. All day. With my calculator and my mechanical pencil, I did line-by-line calculations," said Barbara.

She also said she loved her job. The bond between the women in her group was everything; they relied on and trusted each other.

The managers at the JPL wanted to encourage this feeling of sisterhood, so they started a beauty contest for the women working in the lab.

"At one time we had a beauty contest. The queen was called the Miss Guided Missile," said Barbara, who came in third place.

"I was very shy at that time. I could never do what I am doing right now."

For the next 12 years, Barbara worked with her friends at JPL. She also met a young man and got married. The couple had their first child in 1960, when Barbara was 32 years old. At this time she was in charge of the department and pregnant.

"When personnel found out I was pregnant and I asked for a closer parking spot, that was a mistake," she said. "I was told I had to quit. At that time I was the supervisor. I thought surely I could quit when I wanted to, well that was wrong on my part."

After eight months, the new supervisor of the Rocket Girls called Barbara and asked if she would like to come back. Barbara's husband Harry was a real estate appraiser and was able to adjust his schedule, so Barbara returned.

"My husband was so helpful. If you had a husband who thought you should be at home like other wives, it wouldn't work," said Barbara. "But he had a job that allowed him to be there when I wasn't there."

The women of JPL supported each other, working around each other's schedules to make sure each mom was available to take care of their children, even during the workday.

The fingerprints of those early women computers are still on NASA missions. It all started with this group, who helped design the Corporal rocket series. In the 1960s, Barbara and her co-workers had the chance to put their signatures on a historic rocket before it was sent into space.

Barbara said, "The 100th Corporal rocket, they let all of us sign it before it was sent to New Mexico for launch. We all signed with our Sharpies and the thing blew up right after launch! Somewhere out there in white sands, there is my signature. Funny."

The book Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, is a tribute to Barbara and all her Rocket Girl friends.

As is typical of many in America's greatest generation, Mrs. Paulson remains humble.

"You know, my family says, 'Mom, I didn't know you did all that. Mom, you kept all that to yourself.' We just went to work everyday. That's all we knew."