Women’s History Month – Hidden Figures at NASA: Katherine G. Johnson, Mary W. Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan

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Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three women who until recently were relatively unknown, but their work drew a path for future generations of women at NASA. Originally known as ‘human computers’, they were responsible for calculating complex maths equations for various airplanes and space flights, but all three went on to play a significant role in the Space Race. Their story has recently been brought to light by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden FiguresThe Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race which was turned into an Oscar nominated film in 2016. 

Katherine G. Johnson  

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Katherine G. Johnson was born on 26th August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs W. Va and from a very young age Katherine had a talent for mathematics, as she stated in 1999 “I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry”. However due to the segregated education system in Katherine’s hometown she could only receive schooling up until 6th grade. Therefore, her father, Joshua Coleman had tmove their family 125 miles to Institute W. Va, where Katherine and her siblings could attend high school. At age 14 Katherine graduated high school and started at West Virginia State College, where she graduated ‘with a double major in mathematics and French’.  

Katherine took some time off whilst she had her three children with husband James Goble but returned to teaching after her children were old enough. In 1952 Katherine heard that the segregated West Area Computing section at the NACA’s (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) Langley Laboratory had begun hiring. Upon hearing the news Katherine and her family moved to Newport News in Virginia and in 1953 Katherine began working at Langley. The West Area Computing section was run by Dorothy Vaughan who assigned Katherine to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Divisionmaking her the first woman to be part of that divisionKatherine went on to conduct the ‘trajectory analysis for Alan’s Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7’. She also became the first woman to have her name placed on a research report in the Flight Division in 1960. Katherine was personally asked by John Glenn, one of the astronauts on the mission to orbit the earth in 1962, to check the orbital equations for his trajectory by hand, as he and the other astronauts were a little concerned as these had been formulated by a digital computer. Glenn reportedly said that “If she says they’re good…then I’m ready to go”’.  

Katherine was also part of pioneering ‘for women to attend the agency’s scientific briefings, formerly closed-door affairs reserved for male staff members’In 2017 ‘The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia opened and was named in her honor’. Furthermore, among many other accolades, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.  

Mary W. Jackson  

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Mary W. Jackson was born on 9th April 1921, she studied at the Hampton Institute and in 1942 graduated ‘with a dual degree in Maths and Physical Sciences’. She started as a maths teacher in Calvent County but after moving back to Hampton she took a job as a ‘receptionist at the Kings Street USO Club’. She then went on to hold positions ‘as a bookkeeper in Hampton Institutes Health Department’ and the ‘as an Army Secretary at Fort Monroe’. In 1951 Jackson started work in the West Area Computing Section, the same section as Katherine Johnson. After two years working in the section supervised by Dorothy Vaughan, Jackson ‘received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel’. Czarnecki later suggested that Jackson should get onto a training program, after which she could be promoted to an engineer. However, as the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School’, Jackson had to obtain ‘special permission from the City of Hampton’ to attend. After completing the program, she became the first black female engineer at NASA.  

Jackson, however, despite being the author and co-author of many research reports and being very successful in her field, Jackson became frustrated that she could not get onto the management level roles. Therefore, in 1979 she accepted the ‘position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager’ and ‘she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists 

Jackson also received numerous accolades including an Apollo Group Achievement Award.  

Dorothy Vaughan 

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(Image: Dorothy on the far left)

Born on 20th September 1910, Dorothy Vaughan was previously a Maths teacher before taking a position in 1943 at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Vaughan originally believed the position to be only temporary due to the war but after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited ‘racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women’. However, due to the rise of Jim Crow Laws, black women were segregated and worked separately from the white female employees. Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computing Section, later becoming in charge of the section‘making her the NACA’s first black supervisor’. 

Vaughan collaborated on various projects, including one ‘compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines’. Vaughan went on to be head of the West Computing unit for almost ten years, and when the NACA transitioned to NASA, she along with other ‘former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division’, a progressive group in electronic computingVaughan also became ‘an expert FORTRAN programmer and she also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program’.  

Vaughan’s legacy is one that goes far beyond herself, with many women having successful careers such as Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, both of whom originally worked under Vaughan.  

All three women, along with Christine Darden were honoured with the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act and they all leave legacies that have paved the way for future generations of women at NASA.