If she accepted, Barby would once again be the only woman in a group of men. It was a job she hadn’t expected, yet one she was eminently qualified for. Math was a comfortable second skin. She would always feel more at home with a pencil in her hand than at a typewriter. In addition, the position held prestige, allowed her to work alongside her husband, and paid twice what she made as a typist. More than the money, it offered her the opportunity to use her neglected math skills.
It wasn’t just the rocket research group that Barby was becoming a member of. She was joining an exclusive group whose contributions spanned centuries. Before Apple, before IBM, and before our modern definition of a central processing unit partnered with memory, the word computer referred simply to a person who computes. Using only paper, a pencil, and their minds, these computers tackled complex mathematical equations.
Early astronomers needed computers in the 1700s to predict the return of Halley’s Comet. During World War I, groups of men and women worked as “ballistic computers,” calculating the range of rifles, machine guns, and mortars on the battlefield. During the Depression era, 450 people worked for the U.S. government as computers, 76 of them women. These computers, meagerly paid as part of the Works Progress Administration, created something special. They filled twenty-eight volumes with rows and rows of numbers, eventually published by the Columbia University Press as the plainly named Mathematical Tables Project series. What they couldn’t know was that these books, filled to the brim with logarithms, exponential functions, and trigonometry, would one day be critical to our first steps into space.
The dream of space exploration was what initially tugged at the Suicide Squad. They worked on engines during the day, but at night they talked about the limits of the universe.
At the time, rockets were considered fringe science, and the people who worked on them weren’t taken seriously. When Frank asked one of his professors at Caltech, Fritz Zwicky, for his help on a problem, the teacher told him, “You’re a bloody fool. You’re trying to do something impossible. Rockets can’t work in space.” In fact, the word rocket was in such bad repute that the group purposely omitted it when they formed their institute, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Some scientists at the sister Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology snickered at them, while Vannevar Bush, an engineering professor at MIT, derisively said, “I don’t understand how a serious scientist or engineer can play around with rockets.”
* * *
The Canrights were enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon on December 7, 1941. Barby was in the kitchen, cooking and listening to the radio, when the announcer interrupted the program with breaking news. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Barby fell to the kitchen floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. The war had hit home. Hawaii suddenly seemed very close to California. Barby and Richard were glued to the radio for the rest of the evening. Barby knew that their work would now take on a new importance. Going in to the lab the next day, they might have been talking about Pearl Harbor, but they were thinking about the rocket plane. The army needed to lift a fourteen-thousand-pound bomber into the air.