I was the first female Negro student at West Virginia graduate school. On any given day I analyze the binomial levels for air displacement, friction and velocity, I compute over ten thousand calculations by hand. Yes, they let women do some things at NASA, and it’s not because we wear skirts, it’s because we wear glasses.” – Katherine Johnson portrayed by Taraji Henson in Hidden Figures.
Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson are the three names of three individuals who if you don’t know by now, you’ve been living under a rock. Often times we are graced with the opportunity to experience the minds of brilliance and while some of the greatest individuals tell their tales in their autobiographies, some live on to tell the tale and others are still in our midst.
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were very influential contributors in an age where NASA was male dominated and discrimination was at a high. The unit they were assigned to comprised of a group of ‘coloured’ female mathematicians, who later defied the strict rules of the unit where segregation and under the table discrimination was concerned and contributed to all areas of ground-breaking research at the laboratory.
Dorothy Johnson Vaughan rose to the occasion becoming the organization’s first African-American female manager, which later paved the way for female empowerment and the acceptance of the African-American community. She was also the head of the NACA’s West Area Computing Unit, as her phenomenal qualifications as a mathematician granted her respect in a segregated agency.
She was born in Kansas City, Missouri on September 20, 1910. Her parents were Annie Johnson and Leonard Johnson who loved her dearly. In 1917 they all moved to Morgantown, West Virginia and she attended the Beechurst High School and received a Bachelor of Science from Wilberforce University, Ohio in 1929.
In her later years she taught math at the Robert Russa Moton High School in Virginia, she went on to apply for a job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943. She applied in light of the Executive Order 8802, a law omitting racial, ethnic and religious discrimination within the defense force; the laboratory then accepted black women for various positions. She started working in the West Area Computing unit as a mathematician within the lab, however was segregated from her white counterparts and put in the department with the black female mathematicians.
Little did they know this is where history started and she would head the department for nearly a decade. Soon enough she became the head of the unit which gave her much needed recognition. She collaborated with the likes of Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects including the compilation of an algebraic method for machine calculation handbook. She was basically the liaison for most relations (both black and white) in support of equality; whether it was for raises in salary or job promotions, she did it all.
She joined the Analysis and Computation Division when NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) changed its name to NASA and was seen as a respected and brilliant FORTRAN programmer expert with boldness to push boundaries.
Her life was lived meaningfully and she was always bursting with stories and life lessons that even today are still being told. She died at age 98 on November 10, 2008. Her legacy lives on through the individuals she inspired; she retired from NASA in 1971.
Mary was a ‘head held high’ kind of woman as she was very proud of her job at the Langley Space Station. Jackson grew up in Hampton, Va., where she was born on April 9th, 1921 to parents Elle and Frank Winston. She received her Bachelor’s degrees in 1942 in both physical science and mathematics from the Hampton Institute and then went on to teach in Maryland and thereafter became a secretary for the United Service Organization.
In 1951 she joined the NACA as a mathematician, beginning her career at the Langley Research Center and after taking a few courses and dedicating five years to the agency became an Aerospace Engineer. This is where her passion lay as she performed tasks to analyse data of wind tunnels and aircrafts while advising women to reach their full potential and increase their earning potential. She felt that she had reached the highest level of engineer in her tenure of thirty-four years so she followed her own advice and decided to change careers.
Jackson applied to an administrative professional position in the Equal Opportunity Specialist division of the agency regardless of the salary and status cuts.
Before Jackson retired in 1985, she was instrumental in the aircraft take-offs and projects like Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 to name a few. Additionally she hired some of the most qualified individuals who were the brain children of the projects and served as Federal Women’s Programme Manager and Affirmative Action Programme Manager.
Time did not permit her past 2005, as she passed away at the age of eighty-three on February 11th. She notably left behind a legacy which made opportunities afforded to many persons and females especially realize their potential and advance from mathematician to engineer. She broke the boundaries in a gender biased and colour-blinded society along with her colleagues. Her story will be told for many years to come.
Katherine Johnson was another pioneer who orchestrated the lift off of the first group of astronauts into space with her remarkable math coordinate calculations by hand. Her calculations were so accurate that NASA requested that she checked all the computers before they launched the astronauts into space.
She was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, W.V. She always said that her father (Joshua Coleman) was the smartest man she ever saw and got her inspiration to master numbers from his skill with math even though he only went to sixth grade. She had a passion for numbers like no other and she acted on that love by enrolling at West Virginia State University to fulfill her dream of becoming a research mathematician. She graduated high school at 14 years old college at 18. She originally majored in French but also took a major in Mathematics thereafter when her lecturer by the name of Dr. W. W. Schieffelin Claytor encouraged her to master her skillfulness in Math.
She taught for seven years in Marian Virginia then Morgan Town West Virginia at first, then got married and raised a family. She went back to teaching for a while then applied to Langley in 1952 but they had filled all positions for that year. She re-applied and got in.
“I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, it was important to you to do your job. I knew it was there but it didn’t affect me.” – Katherine Johnson
She quickly became a valuable asset to the agency and was given a permanent job there. She was assigned to various missions, but the most memorable were the space voyage of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 in 1961; John Glenn’s space orbit in 1962 and the moon landing flight in 1969 known as Apollo 11.
“I felt most proud of the Apollo project they were going to the moon. I computed the path that would get you there….It was my job and I did my job correctly and well.” – Katherine Johnson
The now ninety-eight year old has advice for young people today:
“I liked to learn, the thing with kids today is they don’t want to learn…You need to learn how to learn and you learn if you want to so you need to want to learn… It was important to me to learn why” – Katherine Johnson.
She was presented with the American flag which was taken aboard the fourth flight of Columbia in recognition for her contributions in ‘making space available’. She also received with countless awards in her tenure of thirty years (1953 – 1986) at NASA and was recently honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Arthur B.C. Walker II Award and the new Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA Langley.
She will forever be a legend, esteemed by generations who succeed after her. Her contribution to NASA and the world as a minority – a woman and a woman of colour – will be the foundation for any and every one to know that they can defy all odds.
The true-story heart tugging movie in commemoration of the lives of Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson was conceptualized and will be hitting theatres in January 2017. The ‘geniuses among the geniuses’ will be portrayed by popular actresses Taraji Henson (Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Vaughan), Janelle Monae (Jackson) as they bring the rendition of the story written by Margot Lee Shetterly to life. Shetterly learnt of their story from her father who was a research scientist at NASA Langley.
These three women calculated launch windows for astronauts and while they were once a distinct memory and known by our forefathers, they are now etched in history and the modern era through the developing and screening of this movie. NASA depends on the ‘hidden figures’ to pioneer their future; this is a product of what is possible when one’s God given abilities are allowed to flourish. NASA continues to lead world into the frontier of space with help from brilliant mathematicians, engineers, inventors, scientists, computer programmers.
“What they did had a lot to do with where we are in space and science today.” – Taraji Henson
By Alexandra Daley