Computers may have gotten John Glenn into space, but not all of them were made of circuit boards and lithium batteries. A team of human "computers" was instrumental in each of NASA's early triumphs in human spaceflight. So why don't we learn about these pioneers in high school history class? Simple: because they were black women.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly was shocked when she discovered her husband didn't recognize names like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, or Dorothy Vaughan. She knew all these women well, since her climate scientist father had worked with them at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Sadly, she soon discovered that her husband's obliviousness was not the exception, but the norm. So she decided to chronicle their contributions to the American space program in a book titled Hidden Figures. Now that book has become a movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. It'll enter theaters on Christmas this Sunday, then expand on January 6th. But before you sit down for this Obama-endorsed historical film, here's what you need to know about its real-life prodigies.
Katherine Johnson is by far the most famous of the trio – and it was clear she was destined for greatness before she could legally drive. Johnson entered high school when she was just 10 years old, then moved onto West Virginia State College at the age of 14. She had completed her degrees in French and mathematics by the time she hit 18. After that, she became one of the three graduate students to desegregate West Virginia University. Johnson dreamed of becoming a research mathematician, but initially had to settle for a more attainable job in teaching. She quit for a time to become a stay-at-home mom, but her husband's illness pushed her back into the workforce. In 1952, she learned of an intriguing new opportunity at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. (NACA was the predecessor to NASA, until it dissolved in 1958.) The organization was in desperate need of "computers," or mathematicians to run calculations for the engineers. It was specifically seeking black women for the job. So Johnson applied, and one year later, she began her storied career in in the aerospace industry.
Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shephard's 15-minute flight, which made him the first American in space in 1961. She also crunched the numbers for John Glenn's history-making orbit of the Earth -- at Glenn's personal request. (NASA had already done the calculations on electronic computers, but Glenn wouldn't trust them until Johnson verified the numbers.) She also contributed to the Apollo 13 mission and the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986.
Although Johnson was indispensable to NASA, she and her black colleagues were initially segregated from the white women also serving as "computers." They could not use the same bathrooms, live in the same housing at Anne Wythe Hall, or sit at the same cafeteria tables during lunch. In fact, there was a sign reading "Colored Computers" on their designated table, lest they forget. Bu that sign soon disappeared, because a defiant computer by the name of Miriam Mann slipped it into her purse. Whenever it returned, she'd simply steal the new one again, until the sign-maker eventually gave up.
Mann and Johnson weren't the only two computers to push back against segregation. Just ask Mary Jackson.
Much like Johnson, Mary Jackson pursued a dual degree (mathematics and physical sciences, at the Hampton Institute) before entering a career in teaching. She also worked as a receptionist, bookkeeper, and stay-at-home mother before accepting a job at NACA in 1951.
After two years of stellar work, Jackson was recruited to assist on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. This wind tunnel could blast anything in its path with twice the speed of sound, and it was supervised by engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. After seeing Jackson's aptitude for the experiments, Czarnecki urged her to take courses that would allow her a plum promotion from "computer" to engineer. The only problem? The classes were held at an all-white high school. Undeterred, Jackson petitioned the city to let her attend. She won, and became NASA's first black female engineer in the process.
Jackson wasn't done fighting the system, though. As her onscreen counterpart Janelle Monae recounted in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, when Jackson discovered the horrifying pay gap between NASA's white male and minority female employees, she left her engineering career behind to work in HR. It was a demotion, but she suddenly had a hand in hiring scientists who might take her place -- ones that other, discriminatory managers might've ignored.
Finally, there's Dorothy Vaughan, who was the boss of both Johnson and Jackson in their early NACA years. Vaughan ran the segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 through 1958, which made her the first black manager at NASA. She came to the position through a familiar path – she obtained a degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University (where she had earned "splendid grades" and a full-tuition scholarship) and became a teacher, before hearing of new opportunities at NACA. The job listing reached Vaughan through a newspaper ad. In her application, she included personal references, school transcripts, work history, and foreign language skills, as well as the promise that she could start in just 48 hours.
She was hired in 1943, while America was still in the throes of World War II. Vaughan assumed her exciting new gig was a temporary war job, but after Germany surrendered, she and the other new hires in the West Area Computing Unit stayed put. Four years later, the death of her white supervisor would boost Vaughan to head of the department. She held that position for nearly a decade, before NACA dissolved into NASA and its segregation policies were abolished. At that point, Vaughan joined the integrated Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) as a programmer. But she never attained another managerial position, and retired from NASA in 1971.
Only Johnson is still alive today. Jackson died in 2005, while Vaughan passed away in 2008. In life, they never got the recognition they deserved. But this recent exposure will hopefully land them in more history books – just as their example will hopefully land more young women in STEM programs.
Feature Image via YouTube