Women in Space, The Unsung Heroines’ Series: Laurel van der Wal, The Remarkable Journey of a Showgirl-Turned-Aeronautical Engineer

“I am impatient with people who do not make full use of all their capabilities.”

Those were words that Laurel van der Wal lived by. Named by the Los Angeles Times, “1960’s Woman of the Year in Science,” van der Wal’s work as an aeronautical engineer and a pioneer in the field of bioastronautics was instrumental in setting the groundwork that would eventually land man on the moon.

Born in 1924, van der Wal graduated from high school at the age of 15. While she was earning her degree from the University of California, the exceptional woman worked as a railroad switch tower operator, a fashion model, and even a show girl to pay for her degree. No job was too big or too little to get her to where she wanted to be. 

Graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, van der Wal continued her education at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. After returning to the United States, van der Wal went on to work in Cape Canaveral, Florida as head of bioastronautics at Space Technology Laboratories (STL). It was while she was working at STL that she came up with an idea that would soon lead the United States of America to enter into the space race with a good deal more fervor.

At the time that van der Wal joined the STL’s team, the rocket experiments were using ballast for payloads. What this meant, in essence, was that the rockets were carrying weights to replace the mass of what would be nuclear warheads if the rockets were ever in a real conflict. Van der Wal surmised that the space that was currently just being used to hold extremely large paperweights could instead be used to provide data for the manned flights that she hoped were right around the corner. 

It is from this idea that Project MIA (Mouse in Able) was born. The mice that were put onboard these unmanned rockets had their heartbeats measured and transmitted back to the STL as they were shot at over 15,000 miles per hour and reached altitudes of more than 1,400 miles (a record at the time).

What was her reasoning for pushing so hard to collect this data? Well, in her own words, the Space Race was heating up – and she was well aware of how close Russia was to beating the United States to the moon.

“Americans must wake up to the fact that we have a very real competition,” she said, “and they must be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see that we win this competition.”

Van der Wal was convinced that not only was it imperative that scientists did their part, but that ordinary citizens also participated.

“I tell people what I think. I attempt to spread the gospel and convince some of our voting citizens off what we ought to be doing in the space field.”

Indeed, her later work became focused on educating future generations about the importance of our exploration into the stars. 

“Kids all over the world are excited about space,” she affirmed, “because this is the challenge to their generation.” 

Van der Wal eventually became the director of the Southern California chapter of the American Rocket Society, and partnered with the Explorer Scouts to teach children about space and aeronautics.  

A champion for the United States of America’s fledgling space program, van der Wal is proof that no odds can hold a person back from their goals!

Sources Referenced: 

Connors, P. (1961, August 22). Women are Finding a Place in Space. The Sandusky Register, pp. 11–11.

Gray, T. (1998). Animals in Space. NASA. Retrieved December 27, 2022, from https://history.nasa.gov/animals.html 

Loper, M. L. (1960, August 7). Woman Explores Science’s Frontier. Los Angeles Times. 

Outer Space May Also Come Within Realm of Woman’s World: (1961, October 8). Los Angeles Times. 

Sweeney, J. (1962, June 21). Work By Woman Scientist Helped Prepare Way For Manned Flights. The Franklin Evening Star, pp. 14–14. 

Top Space Scientist Will Speak. (1962, March 18). Los Angeles Times. 

Van der Wal, F. L., & Young, W. D. (1959). Project Mia (mouse-in-able), experiments on physiological response to spaceflight. ARS Journal, 29(10), 716–720. https://doi.org/10.2514/8.4879 

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