BLACK “COMPUTERS”

Despite the title, this blog is not about black IBM or Apple computers.

In the early years of the space program, before the advent of computers, NASA employed humans to calculate, by hand, the complicated mathematical data required for successful space missions, such as orbit trajectories, wind tunnel resistance, and re-entry angles.  The persons who accomplished these tasks were known as “computers.”   They were aptly named, as they performed tasks that are now handled by modern computers.

Virtually all of them were women, and many of them were black.  Simply put, in the 1940s and 1950s computer work was considered “women’s work.”  The men were engineers; the women were computers.  Three of these pioneers were African American – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.  They are featured in the current movie “Hidden Figures.”  As Johnson put it in a recent interview, it was a time “when the computer wore a skirt.”  Their story deals not only with the American space program, but also it illustrates the various social issues of the time.

Beginning in the 1940s NASA and its predecessor, NACA, began to seek out black women to work as computers in the nascent space program.  As portrayed in “Hidden Figures”  these black women were college educated and highly skilled mathematicians, but, nevertheless, they were subject to all the “Jim Crow” laws and customs of the day in Virginia.  For example, they had to work in a segregated area, eat at a segregated table,  use a “colored ” bathroom, and find segregated housing.   The movie vividly portrays how Johnson had to virtually run a mile from her desk to the nearest “colored” women’s bathroom to relieve herself.  This may seem a bit “over the top” to us in today’s world,  but it was an accurate illustration of life in the 1950s in the South and one of the subplots that makes the movie so poignant and realistic.

As many of you know, the 1950s and early 1960s was the height of the “Cold War” with Russia.  Communists were the arch enemy.  Americans were constantly living with the prospect of nuclear holocaust.  Space and the need to control it were viewed as critical elements in this war.  And beginning with the launch of Sputnik in October, 1957 the Russians were perceived to be far ahead of us in that area.  That was incredulous and unacceptable to us.  We were playing “catch up,” and we didn’t like it.  Most of us are familiar with the names of the astronauts, particularly John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong, and we are cognizant of the collective efforts and accomplishments of the NASA engineers.  But, in their own way, the computers were just as crucial as them to our ultimate success in the space program.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, WVA.  She married twice, raised three children, and has six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.  Among her many accomplishments in the space program:

  1.  She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight.  Years later, Johnson said “you tell me when you want it and where you want it [the capsule] to land, and I’ll…tell you when to take off.  That was my forte.”
  2. At John Glenn’s specific request, she verified the IBM computer’s data for his flight.  Glenn did not fully trust the nascent computer technology, and he would not fly until she verified its calculations.  Supposedly, he told the powers that be “get ‘the girl’ [Johnson] to do it….if she says they’re [the numbers] good, you know, I’m good to go…”  Note: the moniker “girl” was not meant to be derogatory.  Everyone called all the women “girls.”  The irony is delicious.  The hero astronaut and future US senator put his life in the hands of a black woman who had to run a mile to go to the bathroom.
  3. She calculated the trajectory for the moon landing.
  4. During her distinguished career, she co-authored some 26 scientific papers.
  5. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

She is portrayed in the film by Taraji P. Henson.

Dorothy Vaughan was born on September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, MO.  She earned a BA in math at Wilberforce University in 1929 at the age of 19.  She taught school until 1943 when she began a 28-year career at Langley Research Center.  She focused on flight path technology.  Her major accomplishments included:

  1. Computer coding and programming using FORTRAN, which she mostly taught herself in her spare time.  Eventually, she taught many others.
  2. She became one of the few female supervisors at NACA, and the first black one.  In a sign of the times, she actually had to function as the de facto supervisor for many years before being granted the title officially.
  3. As supervisor, she continually fought with the powers that be for the betterment of “her girls.”  Regarding her experiences, she later remarked “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”

Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971 at the age of 60.  She died in 2008 at the age of 98.  She is portrayed in the film by Octavia Spencer.

Mary Winston Jackson was born on April 9, 1921 in Hampton, VA.  She earned a BA in math and physical science from Hampton Institute in 1942.  She began her career at NASA in 1951 as a computer, but, after taking several engineering courses, she became an aerospace engineer, a singular feat for a black female at that time.  To do so, she had to obtain a judge’s order to allow her to attend a segregated high school.  During her career she authored or co-authored several technical papers for NASA.

CONCLUSION

Females have made many significant contributions to their respective countries’ space programs.  For example, as of last July 60 of the 537 astronauts have been female.  The first female astronaut was a Russian, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.  The first American female was Sally Ride in 1983.  Forty-five of the 60 have been Americans.

The abilities and accomplishments of the female computers should not be trivialized.  In this era of using computers to calculate even the most mundane mathematical functions it is difficult for us to appreciate the skill that was required to calculate complex orbits and trajectories, and often under severe time constraints.  Without them, the more famous astronauts and engineers could not possibly have succeeded, and the moon landing could not have occurred.

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