A street sign honoring black female mathematicians who played important roles in the space race is unveiled at NASA’s Washington headquarters in June.
THEY labored in obscurity, contending with the daily humiliations of segregation even as they helped America win the Space Race. Fifty years later, these “hidden figures”—four black female mathematicians who worked as human computers for NASA during the 1960s—are finally getting their due.
On Nov. 8, President Donald Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act, co-sponsored by Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, conferring the nation’s highest civilian award to Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden, and posthumously to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson for their distinguished service to their country.
And distinguished it was. The quartet made spaceflight possible by making complex calculations by hand at NASA’s Langley’s Research Center in Hampton that ultimately led to mankind’s first landing on the moon. But few people, even in Virginia, had ever heard of them before a book about their exploits by Charlottesville resident Margot Lee Shetterly was adapted into the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.”
Katherine Johnson’s career with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that would later become NASA, began in 1953. She was assigned to the racially segregated, all-black West Area Computing section. Not only did this remarkable woman calculate the trajectory for America’s first human spaceflight by astronaut Alan Shepherd in his historic Freedom 7 mission, John Glenn personally asked for her expertise to verify the orbit selected by NASA’s electronic computers prior to the Friendship 7 mission that made him the first American to orbit the Earth. Johnson continued to provide calculations for the Apollo and other space missions before her retirement in 1986.
Dr. Christine Darden, who began her career at the Langley Research Center as a data analyst, went on to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from George Washington University. Her work, including more than 50 articles about reducing the effects of sonic booms and supersonic wing design, revolutionized aircraft aerodynamic design.
Dorothy Vaughan, a former math teacher in Farmville who died in 2008, also worked in the West Area unit, becoming NASA’s first African American supervisor and an expert programmer in the agency’s Analysis and Computation Division.
Mary Jackson had to petition the City of Hampton to attend graduate-level courses in physics and mathematics at the then all-white Hampton High School. She would go on to become NASA’s first female African American engineer. She died in 2005.
A fifth gold medal was also awarded to “all women who served as computers, mathematicians, and engineers” at the space agency between the 1930s and the 1970s, according to the bill. This acknowledgement of their contribution is long overdue.
While these lady mathematicians were busy making sure that U.S. astronauts got safely launched into space and came back home again, they were forbidden from eating in the same cafeterias or using the same restrooms as their white colleagues because they were supposedly inferior on account of their race.
A better example of the absolute folly of judging people by the color of their skin would be hard to find.