Today’s post was written by Denise Dempsey a Science Reference Librarian.
The recent release of the new film Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, presents a great opportunity to learn more about the contributions of African American women to the Space Race and to space exploration.
The movie focuses on three members of NASA’s segregated mathematical work unit, West Area Computers at what is now the Langley Research Center, who were instrumental in the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit: Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, Mary Winston Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. At the time that the movie takes place, “computers” were not the powerful machines that we use today, but actual women who performed crucial calculations.
Dorothy Vaughan, the first African American supervisor at what was then NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later NASA), was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1910, and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1929. Mrs. Vaughan was hired at Langley in 1943 and was the head of the West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, when segregation at NASA ended and the Unit was disbanded. Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971 and died in Hampton, Virginia in 2008.
Mary Jackson was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1921 and graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with degrees in mathematics and physical science. She taught school in Maryland before coming to work at Langley in 1951. After two years in West Area Computers, Mrs. Jackson accepted a position at Langley’s Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, and in 1958 became NASA’s first African American female engineer, co-authoring a number of technical reports on wind tunnel research. She retired from NASA in 1985 and passed away in Hampton in 2005.
Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 with degrees in mathematics and French. Like Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson started out as a teacher in the public schools. After a short stint in graduate school, Mrs. Johnson started work at the Langley Laboratory in 1953 and retired in 1986. She was the co-author of over 20 technical reports while at Langley. Katherine Johnson still lives in Hampton, Virginia.
Although her character is not shown in the movie, the book also highlights the life and career of engineer and mathematician Christine Mann Darden. Dr. Darden was born in 1942 in Monroe, North Carolina. Like Mary Jackson, she graduated from Hampton Institute, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1962. Also like the other women, she taught in public schools before joining NASA as a computer in 1967, the same year she earned an M.S. in applied mathematics from Virginia State College. After confronting a supervisor about the job disparity between men and women with similar educational backgrounds, Dr. Darden was transferred to the engineering section at Langley, and her career progressed. She wrote a number of technical papers, earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from George Washington University in 1983, and became director of the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center at Langley in 1999. Dr. Darden retired from NASA in 2007.
In addition to the human computers, other African American women scientists and engineers have also contributed to America’s space programs. Among them are:
Annie J. Easley. Like the women in Hidden Figures, Annie Easley worked as a computer at NACA’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio (later renamed the Lewis Research Center and then the Glenn Research Center) beginning in 1955. As human computers were phased out and machines took their places, Mrs. Easley became a computer programmer, working on software development for NASA’s Centaur rocket and co-authoring several technical reports. Born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama, Annie Easley earned a B.S. in mathematics from Cleveland State University in 1977 and retired from NASA in 1991. Mrs. Easley died in Cleveland, Ohio in 2011.
Patricia S. Cowings. NASA psychophysiologist Patricia Suzanne Cowings was born in New York City in 1948. Dr. Cowings graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1970 with a degree in psychology, and earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Davis in 1973. She began working at NASA in 1971 while still in graduate school, and was the first African American woman scientist to be trained as an astronaut payload specialist. Working at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, Dr. Cowings invented the Autogenic-Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE) Method and System used to help astronauts combat motion sickness.
Claudia J. Alexander. Claudia Joan Alexander was an astrophysicist specializing in the physics of comets. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1959, she received a bachelor’s degree in geophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in atmospheric and space science from the University of Michigan in 1993. Most of her career was spent at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Alexander was the last project manager for NASA’s Galileo Project, and was the United States’ project manager for the International Rosetta Mission. A feature of the Rosetta Mission’s target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor. Dr. Alexander passed away in Arcadia, California in 2015.
Aprille J. Ericsson. Aerospace engineer Aprille Joy Ericsson was born in New York City in 1963 and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a B.S. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1986. In 1992, she earned an M.S. in engineering from Howard University, and started work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Three years later, in 1995, Dr. Ericsson received a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Howard, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard and the first African American female Ph.D. at Goddard. In 2016 Aprille Ericsson won the Washington Award, an honor presented jointly by several national engineering societies.
Beth A. Brown. Astrophysicist Beth Anne Brown was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1969. She graduated from Howard University with a degree in astrophysics in 1991, a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1994, and was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1998. Dr. Brown conducted research at NASA in the field of elliptical galaxies and was also the Assistant Director for Science Communications and Higher Education in the Science and Exploration Directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Beth A. Brown passed away in 2008.
Also just announced in January 2017, astronaut Jeanette J. Epps will be the first African American to work on the International Space Station when she comes aboard in 2018. Born in Syracuse, New York, Dr. Epps earned a B.S. in physics from LeMoyne College in 1992, a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) in 1994, and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from UMD in 2000.
Find out more about these and other African American women and men in space exploration by taking a look at some of our research guides and checking out resources like these:
- African American Contributions to Science and Engineering. Cleveland, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lewis Research Center, 1992.
- Black Americans in Aerospace.
- Invisible Wings: An Annotated Bibliography on Blacks in Aviation, 1916-1993.
- Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science.
- Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History.
- Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race.
- MU-SPIN (Minority University-SPace Interdisciplinary Network)
- NASA’s African-American Astronauts Fact Sheet
- NASA’s Innovators and Unsung Heroes
- We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program.
- They Had a Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts.
- A Tribute to National Aeronautics and Space Administration Minority Astronauts: Past and Present.
- [email protected]
- Women at Work in NASA. United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Federal Women’s Program Office, 1979.
- Women of Goddard: Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.