Nebula Award-winner: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I've been telling almost everyone I meet about this book; girls, boys, men and women. This year's Nebula winner in the novel category happens to be about astronauts, in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing, (20 July 2019).

"I'm reading about a woman astronaut!" I say, and wait to watch their faces light up. I hope to inspire others, as Mary Robinette Kowal, and her character, Elma York, have inspired me.

The Calculating Stars

This story revolves around an alternate past for the Earth, from about 1952.

A meteorite, (not a meteor - Kowal is very specific about her science) has hit the Earth, causing death and destruction but also a creeping nuclear winter: a future where greenhouse gas and climate change become the reality that may have wiped out the dinosaurs.

Space exploration and settlement have become imperative.

Kowal's heroine, Elma, is employed as a calculator, recording and predicting trajectories for rockets in the U.S. Space Program. Her husband, Nathaniel, is an engineer on the project. Or Elma would never see him.

To imagine this era, I had to put my mind in that of my Mum, who was married in the 1950s: women wear twin sets and make-up, in an era full of sexism. Oh the sexism. And harrasment.

Although Elma is an ex WASP pilot; engaged to transport (unarmed) fighter planes during the Second World War, it was assumed that these pilots would go back to making babies after the Second World War, not agitate to be allowed into the space programme.

One of the best things about this story is the spectacular way the women shoot down their detractors. Here, Elma describes how, when transporting planes, she had to shake off several enemy pilots (causing one to crash):

Colonel Parker: "You know how excited ladies can get - one plane becomes three. A biplane becomes a Messerschmidt. Maybe the sun was in her eyes on this 'cloudless day'."

Elma: "Oh Colonel Parker, you're so clever! Why, that must be just what happened." I turned to Nicole. "Don't you think?"

She joined me, like the world's greatest wingman.

Nicole (Wargin, Senator Wargin's wife and a pilot herself) : "I'm sure you're right. And to think, all these years, we've been confused by the wreckage. Why, that prisoner must have lied about what kind of plane he was flying to make himself look good." (p.133)

The lady astronaut trainees soon ditch their high heels for flight suits, their flight skills and mathematical skills showing their more than equal capabilities as astronaut trainees; but still can't shake off the establishment's view of them as lip gloss on the project. 

Training is a feast for the media. Training in the Dilbert Dunker underwater crash simulator, Elma and her fellow trainees are given little blue bikinis to wear. Have they been set up to fail?

Swallowing her anxiety (brought on not by extreme testing but by the media), Elma sets a record when escaping the simulator in freezing water, the bikini making it easier to release her straps. Bet they didn't have a scene like this in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Will Elma ever be taken seriously enough to get a real opportunity to go into space?

The establishment in this story don't want to send women, citing female hysteria, physical shortcomings and public reaction if a woman was blown up on the launch pad:

Director Clemons: "I am not sending women into space. If a man dies - well, that's tragic, but people will accept that. A woman? No. The program would be shut down in its entirety." (p.121)

In fact, women handled zero gravity and g-forces better than men, due to their lesser size and muscular stature. And you can't establish a colony without babies...

Not satisfied with shooting down sexism, Kowal also addresses the rampant racism of the time that excluded African Americans from the space programme. She touches too on leftover issues from the recent war, such as anti-Semitism and Nazism, prejudices that must be put aside if humanity is to survive.

Animals were sent into space before any human, the first to survive being Ham the chimp, who made it back to Earth on January 31, 1961.

The first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova (USSR) went up in this reality on 16 June, 1963, making 48 orbits of the Earth, while in the U.S. this didn't happen until Sally Ride conquered space on June 18, 1983.

Accidents happen regularly and are a huge consideration when you're sitting on what amounts to a huge bomb. When Elma York finally makes it into orbit (after saving the day with mathematics under pressure) it's in 1958. Kowal describes exactly how much it takes to volunteer for this:  

"The ship shudders and lurches against its bolts. Beneath us, the two massive Sirius engines swivel, to test their range of motion."

"The engine roars to life beneath us and the entire rocket shakes like a cabin in an earthquake."

"The rocket thunders beneath us and pushes me deep into my couch. The acceleration pulls me back, as if the Earth is trying to keep us from leaving."


As Elma says when making love to her husband, "I love a good rocket launch."

This is a well written and entertaining story and a well-deserved, properly scientific winner of this year's Nebula Awards.

And it's the beginning of a trilogy!

The Fated Sky

Book two of the Lady Astronaut series.

More about space

Keen to find out more about space travel and exploration in our timeline? Try the following:

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

Women Spacefarers 2017

The Right Stuff

The original story of the male fight to be in space. An insight into what it was like to be the wives of these men.

The Right Stuff

The immortal DVD of the book. Very insightful.