Three African-American Women That Were a Crucial Part of the Success

Three African-American women that were a crucial part of the success of the first moon landing have been overlooked for over fifty years until now. The movie “Hidden Figures” highlight the importance of mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The year is 1961 and segregation is very prominent but three intelligent African-American women defied the odds. Katherine G. Johnson is an African-American mathematician born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 26th, 1918. Katherine acquired as B.S in Mathematics and French, at West Virginia State College, in 1937. She was hired by NASA in 1953. During her younger years, she advanced several grades in school. In 1957, Katherine provided the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology.

The math was presented as a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). She also did the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1962 Katherine was asked to construct a worldwide communication network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers. The astronauts were wary of putting there lives in the hand of electronic calculators due to frequent hiccups in the system. During the preflight checklist, the head of the mission, Glenn, asked the engineers to “get the girl”, Katherine, to run the numbers through the equation the had been pre-programmed into the computer, but she had to do it all by hand. The fight was a success and a turning point in the Cold War. At age 97, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

Dorothy Vaughan was born September 20th, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. She attended Wilberforce University and graduated with a B.S. in mathematics. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated ‘West Area Computing’ unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. A mentional moment in the movie “Hidden Figures” is when Dorothy’s boss mentions the fact that every day she leaves work for forty minutes. Dorothy then emotionally explains that there are no bathrooms for colored people in the west wing of the building and she has to walk all the way on the other side of the facility. She also mentions that the coffee pot she uses in the office is not used by her other white colleagues do to their prejudice. She expresses this in front of all her colleagues. Her boss then goes to the colored bathroom and knocks down the sign where it says “coloreds only” with a crowbar. He then says, “No more colored restrooms, no more white restrooms, just restrooms… Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” Dorthy, the first Black supervisor, handled the handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division, ACD, a racially and gender-integrated group of electronic computers.

Mary Jackson was born on April 9th, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia. Mary attended Hampton Institute and graduated with a B.S. in mathematics and physical science. 1953 she accepted an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel at NASA. Mary worked in a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel used to study forces on a model by generating winds twice the speed of sound. Marry was encouraged to get further training so that she could be promoted to an engineer. She needed to take graduate courses in mathematics and physics to get her the job. She could only take a night program by the University of Virginia but at the all-white Hampton High School. Marry Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to go to the classes. After finishing the courses, she was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958 and became NASA’s first black female engineer. That same year, she co-authored her first report, Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds