Their names are not known to millions of Americans. Their major contributions have been hidden for decades.
They are the Black women known as the West Computers, Black women who made their indelible contribution to NASA’s space race program. These four women with their superior math skills helped get astronaut John Glenn and many others into space.
In the 1940s, not many Black women had obtained university degrees, and the few who did, became nurses, secretaries or teachers in the fields of many subjects: English, art, literature, history—and mathematics. For Black women, just as it was for Black men, the crushing cruelty of Jane Crow segregation held back so many bright and intelligent Black people forcing them into jobs of degradation and poverty. But, these women sought the best for themselves, their families, and their community when they defied all odds against them by joining NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA. Their work helped shape and contribute to the space race, the Civil Rights Movement, World War II, and the advent of electronic computers. The West Area Computing Unit (West Area Computers) was the name of the all Black American group of female mathematicians that existed at the NACA Langley Research Center in Virginia from 1943 through 1958. These women, a subset of the hundreds of female mathematicians who began careers in aeronautical research during World War II, were subjected to Virginia’s Jane Crow law, requiring them to use segregated bathroom and cafeterias, segregated from their fellow workers and the indignities that meant to undermine and assail their humanity and womanhood.
Their names are Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden.
Here are their stories.
DOROTHY JOHNSON VAUGHAN, (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) born in Kansas City, Missouri, was a Black American mathematician who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor agency to present-day National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1949, she was the first Black American woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at NACA. Ms. Vaughan worked at the center from 1943 through 1971. The West Area Computing Unit (West Area Computers), was in the beginning supervised by White male section heads until Ms. Johnson was put in charge.
Dorothy Vaughan. Photo credit SOURCE
Ms. Vaughan was one of three Black American women at NASA who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and Apollo 11 in the 1960s. Yes, that Apollo 11 that under the command of Neil Armstrong, set down on the Moon.
Apollo 11 lunar landing. Photo credit NASA
Before arriving at NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, Ms. Vaughan worked as a mathematics teacher at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia.
Catching a segregated bus for her first day of work at Langley, she arrived in 1943 for her job as a “computer”, someone who made calculations and worked numbers for the engineers developing aerospace technology.
With the enactment of Executive Order 8802 and Executive Order 9346, Ms. Vaughan was hired. Along with the other Black women of the West Computers, they worked on mathematical calculations by hand using tools to improve accuracy in space flight.
Ms. Vaughan moved into the area of electronic computing when the first (non-human) computers were introduced at NACA. There, she did computer programming, becoming proficient in coding languages such as FORTRAN, while contributing to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.
In 1949, Ms. Vaughan became the acting head of the West Area Computers, taking over from after a White woman who passed away. In 1951, she was made head of the unit. This promotion made her the first Black supervisor at NACA at the most racist time in America’s history and one of a very few female supervisors. This group, known as the Coloured West Computers was almost entirely Black American mathematicians. It would take many years in her work before she would finally receive the “official” title of supervisor, thus allowing Ms. Vaughan to become a spokeswoman for the women in the West Computing unit as well as other females in other departments of NACA.
Ms. Vaughan continued to work at Langley after NACA became NASA in 1958. By then, NASA no longer had racially segregated groups of employees. Ms. Vaughn joined the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at NASA.
Dorothy Vaughan’s career at Langley was an impressive twenty-eight years.
During her tenure at Langley, Ms. Vaughan raised her four children, one of whom also has worked for NASA.
She retired from NASA in 1971, at age 60, and died November 10, 2008 in Hampton, Virginia.
She was 98 years old.
KATHERINE COLEMAN GOBLE JOHNSON (born August 26, 1918) is a physicist and mathematician who made important contributions to NASA’s aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers. With her accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, her technical work at NASA spanned decades during which she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program and even early plans for the Mission to Mars.
Katherine Johnson. Photo credit SOURCE
Along with the women of the West Computers, she advanced human rights with a slide rule and a pencil.
Ms. Johnson was another former teacher. She graduated high school at age 14. She began attending West Virginia State College at age 15. As a student, Ms. Johnson took all the math courses offered. Many professors took her under their wings, including chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who had also mentored Johnson throughout high school, and W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third Black American to receive a PhD in math. While mentoring Ms. Johnson, Mr. Claytor added new math courses just for her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in math and French, at 18 years old. Upon graduation, Ms. Johnson moved to Marion, Virginia, to teach math, French, and music at an elementary school.
In 1938, Ms. Johnson became the first Black American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, Monongalia County, West Virginia. She was one of three Black American students, and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court decision ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada.
Ms. Johnson worked at jobs as a teacher until a relative told her of that NACA was hiring, as they had recently opened up to hiring Black American women for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Ms. Johnson was offered a job in 1953, she immediately was accepted and became part of the early NASA team.
As one of the “computers that wore skirts”, she started as a computer and then joined the thrusting flight division and from 1953 to 1958 she did analysis for gust alleviation for aircraft working as an aerospace technologist. Her first research report, on orbital flight, was also the first flight research report written by a woman. She calculated the trajectories of NASA’s first human space flights and her work was important to the Apollo Moon landing.
From 1958 until she retired in 1986, Ms. Johnson working as an aerospace technologist accomplished the following: calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959; calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission; plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failure; calculated John Glenn’s MA-6 Project Mercury orbital spaceflight orbit around Earth, in 1962 when NASA, using electronic computers for the first time, needed her in verifying the computer’s numbers because Glenn asked for her personally and refused to fly unless Ms. Johnson verified the calculations; calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.
Alan Shepard, first American astronaut in space. Photo credit SOURCE
Ms. Johnson’s ability and reputation for accuracy in working with digital computers helped usher in the new computer technology establishing confidence in the new technology.
At the time of the moon landing, Ms. Johnson was at a meeting in the Pocono Mountains. She along with some friends and neighbors sat around a small television screen watching the first steps of man’s small step for man and giant leap for mankind on the Moon. In 1970, Ms. Johnson worked on the Apollo 13’s mission to the Moon, the lost Moon of Commander James Lovell’s mission.
Once the mission was aborted, Ms. Johnson’s work on backup procedures and charts helped safely return the crew to Earth four days later.
Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
On November 16, 2015, President Barack Obama included Ms. Johnson on a list of 17 Americans to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She was presented with the award on November 24, 2015, cited as a pioneering example of Black American women in STEM.
Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls).
She retired from NASA in 1979.
She continues to inspire and encourage her grandchildren and all students to pursue careers in science and technology and to aim for the stars.
MARY WINSTON JACKSON (April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005) was a Black American mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Born in Hampton, Virginia, she excelled in her studies in school in the areas of mathematics. She graduated in 1942 from Hampton Institute with bachelor degrees in mathematics and physical science.
After graduating from Hampton Institute, Ms. Jackson taught school in Maryland and became a mother. She became a military secretary and in 1951, Langley offered her a job as a computer. She joined Langley as a computer research mathematician. In two years, she was working with the engineering team working on the supersonic pressure tunnel, where Langley tested models. After that she was training to become an engineer, and after enduring venomous humiliations from Whites in her having to apply for special permission, she started taking classes at a whites-only school.
In 1953 Ms. Jackson moved to the Compressibility Research Division. After five years at NASA and after taking several additional courses, she joined a special training program and was promoted to aerospace engineer. She then worked to analyze data from wind tunnel experiments and real-world aircraft flight experiments at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division at Langley. Her goal was to understand air flow, including thrust and drag forces. Many years later, she was assigned to work with the flight engineers at NASA.
She worked with young children in her neighborhood and even created a miniature wind tunnel with the Black children.
Mary Jackson. Photo credit NASA
After 34 years at NASA, Ms. Jackson reached the highest level of engineer that was possible for her short of becoming a supervisor. Changing positions to become an administrator, which meant a pay cut, Ms. Jackson took that position at the Equal Opportunity Specialist field. In her work, she worked to make changes and highlight the accomplishments of minorities in the field of mathematics and physics. Ms. Jackson served as the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and as the Affirmative Action Program Manager.
She worked at NASA until her retirement in 1985.
Ms. Mary Jackson died in Hampton, Virginia on February 11, 2005.
She was 83 years old.
DR. CHRISTINE DARDEN (born September 10, 1942) is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who has devoted her 40-year career in aerodynamics to researching sonic booms at NASA. She was the first Black American woman at NASA’s Langley Research Center to be promoted into the position of senior executive.
Born in Monroe, North Carolina , as a child she acquired a love of geometry. Upon graduating school in 1958, she struggled to find decent employment and as like so many other Black women, her chances of advancement for herself was limited due to racist white supremacy Jane Crow segregation. But before she graduated school, she took classes in calculus and number theory. She graduated as the class valedictorian in 1958, and subsequently received a scholarship to attend Hampton University, then known as Hampton Institute. She graduated from Hampton with a B.S. in Mathematics in 1962. She also earned a teaching certification, spending a brief portion of her early career teaching high school mathematics.
Ms. Darden joined Langley as a computer and found it unfulfilling after several years there. Wanting to become an engineer, she watched as White men were promoted over her.
Christine Darden. Photo credit NASA
Christine Darden in the control room of NASA Langley’s Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in 1975. Credit: NASA
She challenged the division chief on why this was so when men with the same education as her, and in many cases with less education and experience as her, were constantly promoted over her when she was not promoted. His answer to her was that the women had never complained about it before. He believed that the women would give up work as soon as they started families and had children. But the reality was that for Ms. Darden, like millions of Black women, that was never true, because once Black women went out to work to help feed and care for their families, they had no choice but to continue working to keep their families from starving.
Ms. Darden pressed her case and persisted and was soon after promoted to an engineering team where she could work on her career of sonic boom research. She later completed a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Her early work provided the foundations in sonic boom reduction technology.
In her 40 year career at NASA, Ms. Darden became one of the world’s top leading experts in that area.
Ms. Darden had started her career at NASA in 1967 when by then it had become desegregated and she had known some of the women who were pioneers in that first group of West Computers. She knew that she stood on their shoulders and that she was able to do what she did because of the trail they blazed, knowing that their accomplishments would be scrutinized and they would open paths up for all the Black women who followed them. She knew that she stood on the shoulders of Ms. Johnson, Ms. Jackson and Ms. Vaughn and Ms. Darden felt that all those who came after her will in turn stand on her shoulders as well.
In 1985 Ms. Darden was awarded the Dr. A. T. Weathers Technical Achievement Award from the National Technical Association. She also received three Certificates of Outstanding Performance from Langley Research Center in 1989, 1991, and 1992. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1987.
In March 2007, Ms. Darden retired from NASA as director of the Office of Strategic Communication and Education.