Women and the space race

Hello Readers,
Quick disclaimer I do not own any rights to photos used, the photos are being used for educational purposes. 

Today we are looking at the woman who helped America win the space race. If you followed me for a while and saw my post on Girl Squadsby Sam Maggs Illustrated by Jenn Woodall you know that I loved the film and book Hidden Figures. The true story of three brilliant African-American women named Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who worked at NASA and served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and ultimately restoring the nation's confidence in NASA. I am so grateful that the book and film were made because I had no idea, I honestly cannot recall any of these magnificent women mentioned during any lessons while at school.

Katherine Johnson
American mathematician who calculated and analysed the flight paths of the U.S. space program over
three decades. In 1952 a relative told Katherine about jobs at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by Dorothy Vaughan.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda.

The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in the mission but the astronauts were suspicious of putting their lives in the care of the machines that were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” (Katherine) to run the numbers through the same equations by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. Glenn said, “If she says they’re good……then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success.

Dorothy Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan started at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years (after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802) the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the demand for processing aeronautical research data.

Dorothy was assigned to the segregated "West Area Computing" unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley. In 1949, Dorothy was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA's first black supervisor, and one of the NACA's few female supervisors.  Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best "girls" for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that Dorothy personally handle the work.

Dorothy supervised the West Computing for nearly a decade. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing.

Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer who in 1958 became the first African American female engineer to work at NASA. Mary’s path to an engineering career at the NASA Langley Research Centre was far from direct. Mary arrived at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951, reporting to the group’s supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.

After two years in the computing pool, Mary Jackson received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to get a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. However, the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom.

Mary got permission to completed the courses and earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.  As the years progressed, the promotions slowed, and she became frustrated at her powerlessness to break into management-level grades. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the centre’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

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