The Trailblazers of Math at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory


This year at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) we celebrated our 80th year of scientific research.  Long before JPL was a NASA site we were working on flight technologies, but didn’t get brought into the fold until the space race began.  In 1958, JPL launched the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, and was soon after called on to help land on the moon.  Early attempts to do so failed for various reasons, sometimes missing the moon completely, until the development of Ranger 7.  This paved the way for the manned-missions to the moon that followed.

How They Did it

While the space race and missions to the moon are popular in the classroom and in movies, not much attention is given to the fact of how these calculations could have been performed in an era before modern computing.  In fact, if you have ever had the chance to see pictures or first-hand the inside of these spacecraft, you may have wondered “How could they have ever been successful with such limited technology”!  The answer is that many of the calculations that made these missions successes were performed by hand.  In fact, the JPL team responsible for these calculations were referred to as the ‘human computers’; a group of women especially talented at mathematics who would become the first computer programmers at NASA.

These unsung heroes are finally beginning to get the credit they deserve with upcoming films such as “Hidden Figures”, detailing the contributions of not just women, but African American women in math.

While computational power has replaced many of these paper-and-pencil calculations, women continue to pave a path for exciting careers at NASA and JPL as we embark on even more challenging expeditions into space.  You can read more about the careers of Sue Finley, one of the original ‘human computers’ and still an employee at JPL here:, as well as see more about the stories of our female leaders in science here:

In Your Classroom

With our attention turned from exploring the moon to future expeditions of Mars, your students, too, can get a chance to be human computers.  Unlike the moon, Mars is an enormous distance away and requires an understanding of its orbit relative to ours in order to find our mark. In order to understand when it is most fuel efficient to send a satellite to Mars, your students can calculate launch windows using what is called the ‘Hohmann Transfer’.  Similar to football, a quarterback doesn’t throw in a straight line to a receiver.  Instead, the impulse behind the throw follows a curved path where the effect of gravity forces the ball to follow a curved path.  Similarly, we don’t throw the ball to where the receiver is, but where the receiver is going to be.  This means understanding the motion of the object as it moves towards its target so that it arrives at the exact right location at the right time.

Your students can design and plan missions to Mars with the following activity, found here, which has your high school level kids explore elliptical travel, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and heliocentric longitudes so they can plan their own launch windows.

For this and more classroom lessons, see the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab education website, located at

Brandon Rodriguez
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory