Hidden no more: The African-American women of NASA’s history

24 Feb 2017

A scene from Hidden Figures, the film based on the African-American human computers at NACA, the precursor to NASA. Image: 20th Century Fox

While Black History Month is largely a US custom every February, the release of Hidden Figures on this side of the Atlantic has inspired us to celebrate some of sci-tech history’s finest.

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, once fondly referred to as ‘Spacetown USA’. This reputation grew from the establishment of one of NASA’s oldest field centres, Langley Research Center, in the city in 1917 – though, at that time, there was no NASA, only its precursor: the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Hidden Figures is the Oscar-nominated film based on Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)

Image: 20th Century Fox

In the book’s prologue, Shetterly writes: “Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.” Shetterly’s father worked at the Langley facility and she “knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

Unfortunately, this is not the common image associated with scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Public perception of our sci-tech past (and present) is such that Hidden Figures represents a perspective-shifting moment for readers and cinemagoers.

Shetterly’s book uncovers something unknown about sci-tech history, not because NASA made any secret of the black women who contributed to its advances but because, over time, the typical representation of the engineer, mathematician or technologist as a white male has become embedded in our minds. This domineering stereotype has cast a shadow on those who do not, and did not, fit the mould. And so, while the contributions of African-American women to the space race were as valuable as any of their counterparts, a pervasive stereotype – persistent to this day – has obscured them from memory.

In support of Shetterly’s work to shine a spotlight on the diverse spectrum of people instrumental to the history of science and technology, we’ve documented just 15 (of many) stars of NASA’s space race days, plus three more who carry this torch to present day.

Kathaleen Land

Kathaleen Land was the inspiration behind, catalyst for, and gateway to Hidden Figures. Land, in her retirement, was Shetterly’s beloved Sunday school teacher. Before retirement, she was a mathematician and computer at NASA’s Langley facility.

Land was Shetterly’s first interview for Hidden Figures, providing the author with introductions to many of the other human computers, including the central figure of the book and film, Katherine Johnson.

Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)

From left: Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P Henson as Katherine Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in the film Hidden Figures. Image: 20th Century Fox

Katherine Johnson

A physicist, space scientist and mathematician, Katherine Johnson was integral to early crewed space flight. She carried out the calculations for Alan Shepard’s flight (which made him the first American in space). She also verified the calculations made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit – at Glenn’s request – and for Apollo 11’s trajectory to the moon.

In 2016, NASA named a building at the Langley Research Center after Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Dorothy Vaughan

Played by Octavia Spencer in the film, Dorothy Vaughan has left a lasting legacy for all mathematicians who followed her. During a career that lasted 28 years, she was the first African-American to become acting supervisor of West Area Computers in 1949.

When NASA was established in 1958 and segregation was abolished, Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer working on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle programme.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was one of a small group of African-American women who worked as aeronautical engineers at NASA. She worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1951, reporting to Vaughan, the group’s supervisor.

A few years later, Jackson was encouraged to take engineering classes, though she needed special permission from the city of Hampton. She went on to become NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958.

Eunice Smith

Mathematician Eunice Smith was a neighbour of Johnson’s, and a colleague of hers at the NACA West Area Computers facility. Here, she was involved in many of the projects that drove the US’s first forays into space.

When West Area Computers was dissolved in 1958, as desegregation came to Langley, Smith was one of the nine women remaining in the pool. After the dissolution, she was assigned to the ground load engineering team.

Dorothy Hoover

Dorothy Hoover was one of the few black women working prior to and during the space race to receive recognition for her work. Fluent in abstract mathematics, Hoover worked under Robert T Jones and published two pieces of research on his theory of triangular swept-back aeroplane wings for high-speed aircraft, which can be read here.

Prior to joining NASA, she had been a teaching fellow at University of Michigan and, in 1950, she was promoted to aeronautical research scientist.

Annie Easley

Spending 34 years with NASA, Annie Easley’s introduction into what became the space race arose from a simple 1955 job post that sought candidates with excellent maths skills. She entered what was then called NACA as, essentially, a human computer.

Annie Easley, NASA

Annie Easley. Image: NASA

When machines overtook humans, Easley became a programmer, helping to code battery technology that revolutionised rockets and standard vehicles. She studied further before becoming a speaker, promoting STEM careers to minorities.

Evelyn Boyd Granville

Evelyn Boyd Granville was the second African-American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics from an American university. After joining IBM as a computer programmer in 1956, she created computer software for NASA’s Project Vanguard and Project Mercury space programmes. In 1989, she was the first African-American female mathematician to be awarded an honorary doctorate by Smith College.

Melba Roy Mouton

Having joined NASA in 1959 with a master’s degree in mathematics, Melba Roy Mouton is now considered one of NASA’s most celebrated scientists. In the 1960s, she was assistant chief of research programmes at NASA’s Trajectory and Geodynamics division, where she supervised a team of programmers.

Melba Roy Mouton, NASA

Melba Roy Mouton at one of NASA’s IBM computers. Image: NASA

By the time she retired in 1973, she was head mathematician and programmer on the Echo satellites initiative, and programme production section chief at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Miriam Daniel Mann

Miriam Daniel Mann graduated from Talladega College with a major in chemistry and a minor in mathematics. As part of the job application process, she was one of 11 women in the first cohort required to complete a 10-week course at Hampton University.

Mann completed 20 years of service with NASA after the successful mission that sent John Glenn into space.

Sue Wilder

A data analyst with NASA for 35 years, Sue Wilder was also part of the human computer group behind the early days of the space race. At one stage, she was working with Langley’s magnetoplasmadynamics branch, with her work concerning the physics of a vehicle re-entering the atmosphere.

Prior to her career at NASA, Wilder earned a bachelor’s degree from Hampton Institute.

Leslie Hunter

Leslie Hunter – more commonly known as Lessie – was one of the later additions to the “calculating machine symphony” in the West Area computing office in the 1940s. Set up to accommodate 20 workers, the office was largely assembled from graduates from various colleges in the region. Hunter, however, hailed from further afield as a graduate of Prairie View University in Texas. She was immortalised in an image featuring her and the West Area office’s head, Dorothy Vaughan.

Lessie Hunter, NASA

From left: Dorothy Vaughan, with Lessie Hunter and Vivian Adair (Margaret Ridenhour and Charlotte Craidon in back). Image: Courtesy of Beverly Golemba/ Margot Lee Shetterly

Ophelia Taylor

Born in 1907, Ophelia Taylor began her career as a home economics teacher. She went on to pursue a course for women in engineering at Hampton Institute, becoming one of the first African-American women to be employed by NASA in engineering mathematics. She worked at Langley Research Center in Virginia, earning the role of math technician, which she remained in until retirement. She passed away in 1990.

Kathryn Peddrew

The late Kathryn Peddrew spent her entire career working at NASA, obtaining a job straight after graduation. However, when administrators realised that she was an African-American woman, Peddrew was reassigned to the segregated computing division where she joined the team of human computers.

Peddrew once said that growing up made her realise that being black and female was a barrier to success.

Christine Darden, NASA

Christine Darden in the control room of NASA Langley’s Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in 1975. Image: NASA

Christine Darden

Dr Christine Darden joined NASA in 1967 as a data analyst and computer programmer. Within six years, she was promoted to aerospace engineering. During that time, she completed a PhD in fluid mechanics, which played in an instrumental part in her becoming NASA’s leader in sonic boom technology, pushing aircraft design to new limits.

With a successful career spanning 40 years, NASA awarded Darden the Certificate of Outstanding Performance 10 times between 1973 and 2003.

Mae Jemison

Dr Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel into space when she orbited Earth in Endeavour in 1992.

With a background in both engineering and medical research, Jemison’s introduction into NASA’s space missions came in 1987. She was selected for an astronaut programme that would eventually see her orbit Earth dozens of times for an eight-day mission, in which the US and Japan collaborated on a multitude of scientific experiments.

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson

After gaining a scholarship to MIT, Dr Aprille Ericsson-Jackson became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in mechanical engineering-aerospace from Howard University. She was also the first African-American woman to be awarded a PhD in engineering from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she works today as an aerospace engineer.

Today, (24 February), she will deliver a keynote speech at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to commemorate Black History Month.

Tiera Guinn

As we honour past achievements, Tiera Guinn is making history today. The 22-year-old is a rocket structural design and analysis engineer with Boeing, working on a space launch system for NASA.

In an interview with WBRC, Guinn said she realised her mathematical prowess at a young age while calculating her mother’s grocery bill. Inspired by Hidden Figures, she said: “You have to look forward to your dream and you can’t let anybody get in the way of it.”

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