You may have recently heard or read about the upcoming movie “Hidden Figures”. The picture highlights the brave lives of pioneer African American women physicists and mathematicians at NASA. This group of ladies computed the math that sent Astronaut John Glenn into Orbit in 1962. That’s right, the team that calculated America’s first orbital spaceflight.
So why haven’t we heard much about this ladies until now? Their stories may have been overshadowed by other “bigger” headlines of the time; the Civil Rights Movement, President Kennedy’s assassination, and the day’s politics. The highlight of their careers came at a time when the names of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks were much more recognizable.
The African American women group was composed of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. This all happened when America was playing catchup in the space race. These ladies got the job done and John Glenn was able to make a complete orbit in the Project Mercury Spacecraft.
Back then, the natural path of women talented in math was for them to become mathematicians. The ladies were enrolled at NASA in 1943 during World War II. Many men had been sent off to war and there was a shortage of mathematicians and scientists. The ladies started by working on airplane design and excelled at it. They were moved to the NASA space program at the beginning of the 60’s.
The women were initially treated and regarded as outliers in a male dominated field eclipsed by racism. NASA soon realized that the only people who could do the math (literally) were the African American women.
Katherine Johnson a physicist, space scientist, and mathematician was the only person who could calculate the trajectory numbers for Project Mercury. She calculated and calibrated the computer output for the flight. Being off by a single digit meant certain disaster. John Glenn even got her to do the calculations on the final pre-flight.
Dorothy Vaughan was the first black supervisor at NASA. She worked for them when it was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). She became the head of the West Area Computers in 1949, the group that was composed entirely of the African-American female team.
Mary Jackson was an aerospace engineer and mathematician at NACA and later NASA. Her work included wind tunnel data analysis and theoretical aerodynamics. She helped the team calculate the flight for Project Mercury and later on Apollo 11.
Their works and achievements are highlighted in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures and the upcoming movie of the same name. The ladies have served as role models and as an inspiration to several generations of African Americans and to people of different backgrounds.