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Spotlight on the First Female Mathematician of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Spotlight on the First Female Mathematician of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Having landed the first humans on the moon, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an acknowledged pioneer in space science. Over the years, NASA’s popularity has become so widespread that children across the country attend space camps every summer in hopes of becoming a NASA astronaut or engineer in the future.

But even before NASA existed, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is now operated by NASA, was a leader in rocketry, and one woman hired as the first female mathematician at the JPL led the way to opening space science to women. Read on to learn more about this remarkable woman.

About Today’s JPL


According to the NASA website, today the JPL is responsible for 19 spacecraft and 10 major instruments that carry out astronomy missions. NASA notes these missions involve the exploration of Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, among many other projects.

According to NASA, the JPL is responsible for having designed currently-used airborne and orbiting observatories, weather- and climate-tracking satellites, a deep space atomic clock, and the largest single-mount telescope in the world, to name just a few highlights. 

History of the JPL

NASA’s history of the JPL notes that it was established by students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who were interested in rocketry. According to this history, in the JPL’s early days, it developed missiles for the US Army. Once NASA was established, oversight of the JPL was transferred there. According to NASA, at that time, the JPL began focusing on developing spacecraft and their scientific payloads.

Canright’s Groundbreaking Contributions to the JPL

According to a biography published by Occidental College, Barbara Canright, an alumna of that school, became the JPL’s first female mathematician in 1940. This is when she joined the laboratory’s three original founders thanks to increased US Army funding for developing rockets.

A History Channel profile of women who have worked for NASA explains that Canright’s earliest work at the JPL focused on using rocketry to lift airplanes off the ground. Her Occidental College profile notes that the team was finally successful in 1941, when rockets first allowed a jet plane to take flight in half the distance required by other airplanes.

The History Channel notes that in Canright’s later work with the JPL, she transitioned to calculating the rocketry power needed to propel the earliest spacecraft. The profile explains that the complex calculations used in this work were done by hand in pencil on graph paper. As a result, the calculations required multiple notebooks and each one took over a week to complete.

Canright’s Legacy of Women in the JPL

According to her Occidental College profile, Canright only worked at the JPL for three years before she had to resign due to pregnancy. This is because in 1943, women were not allowed maternity leave. However, the History Channel notes that before she left the JPL, other women joined her in doing calculations, and collectively they became known as “computers.”

JPL Human Computers
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Among these “computers” at the JPL, the History Channel notes such remarkable women as Marcie Roberts, a supervisor in 1942 who made the bold decision to staff her team entirely with women. Another supervisor, Helen Ling, sidestepped the lack of maternity leave and hired new mothers back to their previous positions after they had resigned to give birth.

Barbara Paulson is also noted for her calculations, which enabled the first successful satellite launch by the United States in 1958. Another member of this group of women identified by the History Channel is Janez Lawson. In 1953, she became the first African American woman to hold a technical position at the JPL. She was one of two people from the JPL who were trained to program the newly-developed IBM computers of the time.

Occidental College lists other women who have played important roles at the JPL in the years since Canright’s time there. Eleanor Helin conducted groundbreaking studies of near-Earth asteroids from 1980 through 2002. Diane Evans has performed pioneering work in remote sensing technology via air- and space-based radar at the JPL for over 20 years. She was named director of its Earth Science and Technology Directorate in 2001.

Additionally, Occidental College highlights Louise Stoehr, who worked for over a decade at the JPL starting in 1975 as an image processor and later as a translator on the famous Viking, Voyager, and Galileo projects. Finally, it spotlights Irina Strickland, a software engineer and group supervisor at the JPL who processes data retrieved from ground-based instruments.

All of these remarkable women in part owe their success to the groundbreaking role Barbara Canfield played back in the early 1940s. Girls aspiring to work in space science today can look to Canright and the women who followed as role models of success.