February 28, 2018
Writer: IT Communications Writer
"We are living in a present that they willed into existence with their pencils, their slide rules, their mechanical calculating machines - and, of course, their brilliant minds." - Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures
The Human Computers
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan are the most famous of the many women who worked as "human computers" during the space race, all of whom are responsible for much of what we understand about safe and efficient space travel today!
Among other accomplishments, Johnson performed space flight calculations and served as the final accuracy check for the calculations of others; Jackson was NASA's very first black, female engineer; and Vaughan supervised all West End Computers, of which Johnson and Jackson were two. Without the work these women did, we may have never landed a man on the moon, several near-miss space travels could have ended in disaster, and the world of space travel as we understand it would likely look vastly different than it does now.
Standing Against Prejudice
It probably goes without saying that Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan were incredibly intelligent - after all, their job titles were the types that are synonymous with intelligence now (rocket scientist, engineer, mathematician, etc)! However, smarts alone would not have been enough to carry them through some of the unique challenges they faced.
All three of these women faced multi-pronged opposition. They were African-American females who began their work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the research center that would ultimately become NASA, right after the implementation of Executive Order 8802. This order forbade workplaces from discriminating against job applicants on the basis of race, religion, or nationality; however, the order said nothing about discrimination within the workplace itself, and there were no measures in place preventing discrimination against women. And so, despite being just as smart, just as capable, and just as hardworking as their white counterparts, these women and their African-American coworkers were paid less and were forced to use "separate and unequal" cafeterias and restrooms. Additionally, they had to contend with the prevailing societal attitude that women were innately less capable of performing complex calculations or doing rigorous scientific work.
Despite these challenges, Johnson, Jackson, Vaughan, and their contemporaries excelled in their work. In fact, Katherine Johnson gained a reputation for her calculations being even more error-proof than actual computers; before his famed launch into space, John Glenn demanded that they "get the girl (in reference to Johnson) to check the numbers...if she says the numbers are good, I'm ready to go," as he didn't fully trust the computer's calculations.
They also maintained a positive outlook about the work they were doing, even when the circumstances in which they were doing it were less than ideal. "I was doing something I liked doing every day," Johnson said of her time at NASA during a 2014 press conference. "I came to work happy to be here and enjoyed doing it all the time." As for days when happiness was scarce and enjoyment was hard to find, Dorothy Vaughan said "I changed what I could, and what I couldn't, I endured."
A Lasting Legacy
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are now arguably some of the most famous figureheads of science and innovation. Each has received numerous medals and accolades, including a Presidential Medal of Honor and the dedication of a building in NASA's Langley Center for Katherine Johnson, and the renaming of an elementary school to honor Mary Jackson.
In 2016, their story was captured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. This book was in turn made into a critically-acclaimed movie, catapulting the women of this "untold story" into national heroes.