Updated: Feb 19
Many of the women profiled so far faced both racism and the added burden of sexism. Given the opportunity, women proved they could be capable doctors, entrepreneurs and advocates. But in the 1950s, the idea of women making contributions to the country’s space program was still unthinkable. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson thought otherwise.
Katherine Johnson grew up in a very poor, very rural area of West Virginia that didn’t offer public schooling for Black children beyond the 8th grade. Believing in their daughter’s brilliant mathematical abilities, the family moved closer to West Virginia State College so Katherine could attend high school and then college on the campus. She took every mathematics course offered and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French in 1937. She was just eighteen.
Johnson raised three children and pursued a career as a research mathematician and teacher. Then in 1952, she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians to help the U.S. prepare for the growing space race with the Soviet Union. The family moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia and Johnson started work as a human computer in the segregated West Area Computers of the Langley Lab. There, Black women were expected to work and eat only among themselves and use bathrooms and water fountains specifically designated for Negroes.
At Langley, Johnson’s first supervisor was Dorothy Vaughan. Vaughan had arrived at Langley in 1943 after earning a degree from Wilberforce University and teaching in Virginia’s segregated schools. During WWII, with most able bodied men serving overseas, the U.S. military expanded its hiring practices to include both White and Black women. At the end of the war, the Korean and Cold Wars served to keep the U.S. focus on space exploration and aeronautic defense. While raising six children, Vaughan supervised hundreds of other Black women mathematicians. However, she would serve for years as an “acting” supervisor, without the official recognition or pay, due to her race.
Also working under Vaughan’s supervision was Mary Jackson. Like Johnson and Vaughan, Jackson also held a degree in mathematics and taught in segregated public schools until being recruited by NACA in 1951. Like her counterparts, Jackson also raised two children while working full time. All three women performed complex computations using slide rules – the only tool available at the time.
The civil rights movement started to challenge segregationist ideas and the Soviets threatened to achieve dominance with the success of their Sputnik program. In response, Langley operations began to bend to the reality that U.S. success depended on utilizing the best minds, regardless of race or sex. After the 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, Katherine Johnson was assigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division. Although she was surrounded by men unwilling to share their information or broader knowledge of the program, Johnson’s exceptional understanding of analytic geometry made her an invaluable asset to the group. She contributed to a number of papers but at the time, women weren’t allowed to put their names on their reports. As she explained in a 1999 interview:
“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston ... but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, "Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway." So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”
When NACA became NASA in 1958, segregation was officially ended. But in an organization dominated by White men, the culture of racism and sexism endured. Yet in spite of the obstacles, Johnson had become a valuable and respected group member. She calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s first manned space flight and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. John Glenn had witnessed Johnson’s abilities and trusted her with his life. When NASA used machine computers for the first time to calculate the orbit for Glenn’s 1962 mission to become the first U.S. astronaut to circumnavigate the earth, Glenn didn’t trust the numbers. According to her NASA biography, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space. Johnson would stay at NASA for thirty-three years, retiring in 1986 after contributing to Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury mission, the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the aborted Apollo 13 mission, where she helped chart a safe path back to earth. She also worked on Space Shuttle missions and the development of Landsat satellites.
At the same time, Dorothy Vaughan was helping the human West Area Computers prepare for the dramatic explosion of technology that would come with NASA’s space program. When NASA desegregated in 1958, it disbanded the West Area and formed the integrated Analysis and Computation Division. As IBM and Bell Labs began installing computing machines to streamline and automate the labor-intensive human computing efforts, Vaughan realized that the jobs held by her and her staff would soon be obsolete. However, she also realized that humans would be needed to program the IBM machines and tell them what to compute. She took it upon herself to become proficient in the new language FORTRAN and then taught her team to become programmers as well. She too contributed to John Glenn’s 1962 orbiting mission. Reflecting on the segregation and sexism of the agency, she noted in a 1994 interview, “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.” Though she continued to seek them, she never received any additional promotions during her twenty-eight year career at NASA.
Mary Jackson fared a bit better, thanks to an offer from engineer Kaz Czarnecki to leave the West Area to work for him in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to pursue additional graduate-level college courses so she could be promoted to Engineer. The problem was that the night courses were only offered by the University of Virginia at the local, but all-White Hampton High School. Jackson had to petition the court to be allowed to attend the courses. She became NASA’s first Black female engineer in 1958. She went on to pioneer research in air flow, thrust and drag, co-authoring a dozen technical papers. By 1979, Jackson had obtained the highest title available to an engineer. Wanting to do more to promote women and minorities within the organization, she took a demotion to become an administrator in the Office of Equal Opportunities Program and as an Affirmative Action Program Manager. She helped others gain advancement by guiding them through the bureaucracy of promotion paths in a complex government agency. She retired from her thirty-four year career in 1985.
All three women pioneered mathematical research and challenged deeply held prejudices about what women in general, and Black women specifically could accomplish. They were subjected to the insults of Jim Crow laws but also benefited from the battles won by civil rights leaders. They further benefitted from the fact that the U.S. fear of Soviet achievements was greater than its fear of Black advancement. Together with the hundreds of other brilliant women at NASA, they literally changed the face of the space agency.