Hidden History: The Ladies of NASA

I'm starting the month with Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  I have to start here because my mind was absolutely blown when I watch Hidden Figures.  I wasn't just blown away by how truly amazing these 3 women were, but I was amazed by the fact that I had NEVER heard of them.  In school, with all the talk of space exploration, the American Space Race, landing on the moon - the ridiculousness that these ladies names were not even so much as whispered in most American History classes, just shook me.   Now, I'm not naive.  I understand the white-washing and man-washing of history well enough. But seriously, come on!  John Glen would have never made it to space with out these ladies.  Apollo 11 would not have happened without the mathetamatical genius of Katherine Johnson.   These ladies of NASA helped make it possible for America to even compete in the space race.  

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Katherine Johnson:  Born in 1918 as Katherine  Coleman, she showed an early affinity for math.  Because this was the American South in the early 1900's, of course there were no real education options for a little brown girl. To be specific, there were no public schools past 8th grade for black children in the county where Katherine was raised.  But because her parents were not to be deterred, and because Katherine's badassery mathematical magic, could not be contained, she was admitted to the Institute, West Virigina, on the campus of West Virginia State College at only 10 years old!  YAS mini-Queen!  Fast forward to her career at NASA where she worked as a human computer, making calculations.  Katherine would make history -  despite having to walk 1/2 mile just to use a bathroom and endure constant demeaning treatment from her co-workers (because racism) - by becoming the first black woman on the Space Task Group.  Her calculations were critical to plotting the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, and Apollo 11.  In 2015 her contributions were finally recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

 

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Dorothy Vaughan: Dorothy joined NASA(back then, known as NACA) in 1943 during WWI, in what she initially thought would be a temporary war time position.  By 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the West Area Computing group, making her the NASA's  first black supervisor.  After discovering an electronic computer at NASA (this was a BIG deal, because computing had been done by humans - mostly female humans), Dorothy took it upon herself to learn about the machine - successfully starting it, where others couldn't - and daring to enter the whites only section of the library to aquire books so she could gain more information.  After educating herself on these new computers, she trained her co-workers, was promoted supervise the Programming Department and brought over 30 of her co-workers (essentially saving their jobs) from pending lay-offs as their jobs will be replaced by computers. BAM!

 

 

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Mary Jackson:   During her time at NASA, Mary also played a crucial role to the success of the space program.  After being assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, she immediately identified a flaw - that, if undetected could have been mayjah problem - okay?!  In 1951, Mary was assigned to the West Area Computing group, reporting to Dorothy Vaughn.   Mary decided to pursued her dream of advancing form a mathmatician to an engineer, so she petitioned the city so she would be permitted to attend night classes at a segregated school.  She won! Finished her courses, and in 1958 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." I mean, what?! I don't know what any of that even means - this woman is crazy smart!  Okay, now here's something I really love about Mrs. Jackson:   "In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists."  This is so beautiful to me.  This woman fought to become one of the few engineers at NASA, and then dedicated the rest of her career to make sure others like her got the opportunities they deserved.  LOVE IT!

 

Okay, so I am obviously oversimplifying so much of this.  But here is the point.  These women defied expectations (black + female killing the math game??), rose above adversity, and followed their dreams.  Without them, NASA would not be where it is today.  Period.  #HappyBlackHistoryMonth

Crystal Ahmadi