Hidden Figures Meet the 3 African-American women who helped launch the space race

Born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers. Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman--a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.

In this MAKERS interview, Katherine G. Johnson talks about her early affinity for mathematics, a college professor who noticed her gift and pushed her to pursue advanced math courses and how she eventually became a NASA mathematician who calculated, among many other computations, the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth; and Apollo 11, the first human mission to the moon.

In his speech to the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2015, President Obama noted, “Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history—even if they weren’t always given a voice.” Most will think of this in the context of the civil rights movement, where black women helped plan the March on Washington, but were largely absent from the program, or perhaps even in the fight for women’s rights, from suffrage to the feminist movement. Very few, however, may know the role that women, particularly women of color, have played as innovators and leaders in the domains of science and technology.

On November 24th, 2015, President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, to Katherine Johnson—a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician who exhibited exceptional technical leadership, calculating and verifying trajectories that took the first Americans to space and to the moon.

Johnson’s recognition by President Obama marks a proud moment in American history because until recently, Johnson’s critical technical contributions to the space race were largely unknown to the world. The contributions and leadership of countless scientific and technical women and people of color who have been tremendous innovators have been left out of American history books, unfortunately. That’s why the Obama Administration is deeply committed to illuminating the great work and “untold history” of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as also shining a light on the great potential of all of America’s children to lead the world as the next generation of discoverers, inventors, and high-tech entrepreneurs.

Mary Winston Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and received her bachelor’s degree from Hampton Institute in Mathematics and Physical Science. After graduation from college, she was briefly a school teacher in Maryland, then began her long career with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Jackson began her career with NACA as a computer – the title given to women mathematicians at the time. She specialized in analyzing data from wind tunnel experiments and from actual aircraft on the many flight experiments NACA conducted. As her career progressed, she began to recognize that many minorities and women were not advancing as fast as she thought they should and so she began analyzing the situation to see what was holding them back. Occasionally it was as simple as a lack of a couple of courses, the location of the individual, or the assignments given them. Jackson advised women on how to change their titles from “mathematician” to “engineer” and increase their promotion potential; advice she followed herself. She was the first woman to become an engineer then an aerospace engineer.

After 34 years, Jackson had reached her highest potential as an Engineer and looked seriously at her own advancement. She decided to step down from her Engineering position for an Administrative Professional position in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. She had to take a step back in pay and status to do this. But she was very successful, initiating many changes and bringing to management’s attention the accomplishments of minorities and women, and was instrumental in the hiring of some of those highly-qualified individuals.

In her personal life, she served as a Girl Scout leader and a committee worker over a period of 20 years. She died on Friday, February 11, 2005 leaving a legacy of changing the face of the engineering workforce at NASA.

Written by Nicole Hutchison

When President Kennedy proclaimed that men would walk on the moon, the word “computer” still referred to humans, usually women, who did the complex calculations necessary for the mission. And at NASA’s Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, some of the most talented of those women were part of the West Area Computers, a group of African-American female mathematicians led by Dorothy Vaughan.

Vaughan was born in 1910, and studied math at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She wanted to continue to graduate school at Howard University, but the Great Depression changed her prospects, and she became a math teacher in Farmville, Virginia. She took a job at NACA in 1943, believing it to be a temporary position to help the war effort. She arrived at Langley when the agency was still segregated.

In 1949, she became the acting supervisor of the West Area Computers and two years later she was given the full title of section head, becoming the first African-American manager at NASA and one of the only women supervisors. She is remembered for both her math and management skills. Engineers looked to her to recommend the right human computer for their project, and would request her specifically if the work was difficult. She would speak up on behalf of both white and black women at the agency for both promotions and pay raises.

Eventually electronic computing became more prevalent, and the Analysis and Computation Division was formed. Vaughan joined this new group and learned computer programming, working in languages like FORTRAN. She contributed to the Scout Project, testing a launch vehicle that was used from 1961 to 1994. She retired in 1971, and once said that working at NASA was like “being on the cutting edge of something very exciting.” She passed away in November of 2008.

There were 80 African-Americans in the NASA human computer program, and they did difficult calculations that helped make the Apollo missions a success. The West Area Computers knew they could contribute, and found a chance to prove their worth. Their stories will be shared in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and a film adaptation of the book is slated to be released in January 2017.

Written by Mary Ratliff

Although they broke gender and race barriers for generations to come, women and especially minorities still make up a small fraction of scientists, engineers and mathematicians today. In this video from The Stream, Margot Lee Shetterly will share what it took to uncover the story of these "Hidden Figures", how women and minorities are erased from history books and why she thinks re-establishing them could redefine the future.

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