You’ve heard of the Space Race, right? The race to get the first man in orbit during the 1960s. Well, without these three women, it wouldn’t have been possible!
African American NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson worked on Project Mercury and Apollo 11. The world was on the brink of World War II, and the race to get a man in orbit was important. It meant the demand for mathematicians was overwhelming. Women became the front-runners for the job as it was cheaper to hire them at the time. They acted as “human computers” who would crunch numbers and work equations that explained detailed mechanical parts of planes and rockets. Melvin Butler, the head of personnel, needed mathematicians to analyse numerical data from wind tunnel nests. These “computers” were called the West Computers after the area in NASA where they were situated. By 1943 it was increasingly difficult to hire women as mathematicians. In previous years, the railroad porters’ union threatened a strike. It ultimately led to Roosevelt having to desegregate the defence industry. Because of this, applications from black women wanting to work as mathematicians soared. However, NASA did not offer an integrated environment for these new black mathematicians to work due to the social rules of the time. And as such, it led to the building of a racially segregated workplace quietly.
Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910. She was somewhat a genius and skipped two grades before becoming the school valedictorian. She went on to study mathematics at college, and a professor had suggested she go on to graduate school. However, it was the start of The Great Depression, and to support her parents, Vaughan became a maths teacher. In the summer of 1943, American troops had been at war for a year and a half. Vaughan worked in the camp laundry in the training centre in Camp Pickett, Farmville, Virginia, where a newspaper article about black women at Hampton Institute near the Langley facility inspired her. She saw a job advertisement for women with a knowledge of maths to work at Langley. She applied for it and was successful, so she left for Langley. Her husband worked in the leisure career as a bellman in her absence and soon became friends with a family who had a daughter named Katherine. She was a decade younger than Vaughan with a similar start, and she was also gifted. She eventually followed Dorothy to Langley.
Mary Jackson was born and raised in Hampton. She studied maths and physical science at Hampton Institute, where she graduated in 1942. Mary went on to teach in a Maryland High school for one year. In 1951 Mary heard about the recruitment of gifted black women at Langley, and she applied for the job there, also applying for a clerical job in the US army. West Computing offered Mary Jackson a job when The Cold War was at its height, and President Truman was ordering the desegregation of the military.
The three women all played greatly important parts in winning the space race. Jackson was a successful NASA engineer. A biography written by Gloria R. Champine said, “She discovered that occasionally it was something as simple as a lack of a couple of courses, or perhaps the location of the individual, or perhaps the assignments given them, and of course, the ever-present glass ceiling that most women seemed to encounter.”
After 30 years, Jackson decided to be an equal-opportunities specialist to help women and minorities. During her time working at West Computers, these black women faced many forms of segregation.
Vaughan predicted that “human computers” would become a thing of the past in 1956, and she encouraged the women at NASA to take programming courses. She was an expert programmer in FORTRAN, the prominent computer language of the day, and also contributed to a satellite-launching rocket called Scout (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test).
By 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, and there were protests regarding the desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Over the next year, the pressure was building for NACA to get the first man in orbit and beat Russia in the space race. NACA dissolved West Computers and reorganised it to become NASA. Johnson began her career with data from flight tests, but her life changed after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. A lecture series compendium called Notes on Space Technology features some of her math equations. These equations were part of the training materials for the later-formed Space Task Group, NASA’s section on space travel. In 1961 during the Mercury missions, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also did the same job for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962. Computers planned Glenn’s trajectory, but he reportedly trusted and wanted Johnson herself to run through the equations to make sure they were safe.
NASA wrote that; “When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the space shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite and authored or co-authored 26 research reports.”
Overall, these women were all inspirational for so many reasons. They set an exemplary example of bravery and hard work for young girls and women worldwide. They have proven with distinction the ability to achieve anything you set your mind to with hard work. They did not let segregation and racism hold them back from achieving their dreams and today serve as inspiration to all those struggling to achieve their dreams due to race. And, for women, they show us we are worth so much and can excel in any role we desire. They even had a film made about their achievements. Hidden Figures is an adaptation based on this true story and was released in 2016
Here is to the incredible women of NASA who continue to inspire us today; and always.
Happy International Women’s Day.