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The Story of NASA’s Real “Hidden Figures”

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African-American women working behind the scenes as “human computers” were vital to the Space Race.

While Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn absorbed the accolades of being the first men in space during the 1960s, the team of female engineers who helped make their accomplishments possible remained, mostly, anonymous.

Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book-turned-movie, “Hidden Figures,” changed that in a big way. Her story profiling three pioneering African American women whose calculations for NASA were integral to several historic space missions brought long-overdue attention to this deserving group.

History

Beginning in 1935, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a precursor of NASA, hired hundreds of women as computers. According to a NASA history, ‘computers’ performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. As the pool of computers expanded during World War II, Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees, even though segregation policies of that era required that these women work in a separate section (West Area Computers).

“Hidden Figures” profiles Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, engineers who eventually became the first black managers at Langley and whose work propelled the first American, John Glenn, into orbit in 1962. While the three female engineers initially served as computers, their skillsets and career trajectories were a testament to the variety of vital roles women play in STEM fields.

Diverse skillsets and careers

Mary Jackson was involved with wind tunnels and flight experiments. Her job was to extract the relevant data from experiments and flight tests. She also tried to help other women advance in their careers by advising them on what educational opportunities to pursue. After 30 years with NACA and NASA, Jackson decided to become an equal opportunity specialist to help women and minorities. Although described as a behind-the-scenes sort of worker, she helped many people get promoted or become supervisors.

Katherine Johnson began her career working with data from flight tests, but her life quickly changed after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in 1957. Her math equations were used in a lecture series compendium called Notes on Space Technology, and later used to form the Space Task Group, NACA’s section on space travel. For the Mercury missions, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961, and (at John Glenn’s request) did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962. She eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Dorothy Vaughan was an expert programmer in FORTRAN, a prominent computer language of the day, and contributed to a satellite-launching rocket called Scout (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test). Vaughan eventually became the first black NACA supervisor in 1949 and made sure that her employees received promotions or pay raises if merited.

Lasting impact

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in order to meet the nation’s evolving workforce needs, the U.S. will need to add 1 million more STEM professionals by 2022. So, beyond the critical acclaim and box office success of “Hidden Figures,” the story of these pioneering female engineers has ignited a national conversation about the importance of women in STEM careers. The spotlight is timely, as the future of the U.S. workforce remains deeply connected to the country’s ability to add candidates who can meet the needs of the rising demand for STEM professionals.

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