Who are the “color computers”, black women, and the forgotten astronauts? African youth

In the 1940s, while World War II was raging, the United States had already embarked on a space conquest. In their ranks, few African American women set out to conquer the stars, their rights and equality.

Among the several hundred employees photographed on November 4, 1943 at the headquarters of the US Space Agency, it is hard not to notice the utter presence of whites and a small number of African Americans in the corner. Beneath the stars and stripes in the United States, in this photo (see above) that was dug up in 2011 by Mary Jenner, an archivist at NASA, apartheid still exists.

The US space agency (then called NACA, for the “National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics”) already has many representatives of the black community within it. Mechanics and technicians… men. But not only. In the early 1940s, she began recruiting young African-American women as mathematicians, or “human computers,” as they are known.

Blacks from the “West Wing”

These women, the first of whom was set in 1935, have long been excluded from the history books, having contributed to the conquest of space. Within the Western District Computers cell, made up entirely of black segregationist employees, they worked on the Mercury or Apollo programs and helped calculate the trajectory of the rocket that would send Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon in 1969.

About 80 of them would have worked in the space programs between 1943 and 1980, for 1,000 white women. They are called Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Catherine Johnson, Catherine Pedro, Kristen Darden, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holly.

African youth He tells you the story of five of these pioneershonored in “Hidden Figures”, is a work by Margot Lee Shutterley published on September 6 and adapted for cinema into a feature film to be released in January 2017.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008)

Dorothy Vaughan, left. © NASA Archives

Born Dorothy Vaughan on September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, the daughter of Leonard H and Annie Johnson, she would have been “satisfied” with her position as a mathematics teacher at Robert R Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. She graduated from Wilberforce University in Zenia, Ohio, in 1929, having been a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority since 1926, yet she was heading, at age 33, toward a more prestigious career.

In 1943, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA), integrating, as a mathematician, the “West Area computers” intended for African American women. Specializing in programming and computer language, she headed this department in 1949 and contributed in particular to the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Instrument Test, a satellite launcher used until 1994) project. A devout Christian, she retired from NASA in 1991, died in 2008, leaving behind four children (two of whom had died before her).

Katherine Johnson (1918-)

Catherine J. Johnson.  © NASA Archives

Catherine J. Johnson. © NASA Archives

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, to a lumberjack father, a farmer father, and a teacher mother. After receiving her baccalaureate at age 14, and then her undergraduate degrees in mathematics and French at age 18, she became a teacher.

Two years later, in 1938, she joined West Virginia University, and helped desegregate there. She was already one of three African American students, and the only woman selected to join the institution, by a decision of the United States Supreme Court.

Appointed in 1963 by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), she demonstrated exceptional skills in computerized astronomical navigation. Having established herself in a world of white men, she calculated the trajectories of the Mercury program and the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. John Glenn, one of the three astronauts, asked Catherine Johnson to check the calculations of modern computers. She left NASA in 1986 and in 2015 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Mary Jackson (1921-2005)

Mary Jackson, bottom right.  © NASA Archives

Mary Jackson, bottom right. © NASA Archives

Mary Winston Jackson was born in 1921, and raised in Hampton, Virginia, where she graduated from high school and then from the Institute of Mathematics and Physical Sciences in 1942. She worked as a time teacher in Maryland, and was appointed by the “National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics” (NACA, predecessor of NASA) in 1951.

You will spend 34 years in the space agency, reaching the highest degree of engineer. Mary Jackson then turned to more administrative work, working to promote equality for women and minorities within the federal services, including NASA, until her retirement in 1985. She died in 2005, at the age of 83.

Catherine Pedro (1922-2012)

Catherine Pedro.  © NASA Archives

Catherine Pedro. © NASA Archives

Born on June 14, 1922, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Catherine Pedro is a chemist, graduating in 1943, the year she was appointed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). A member of the “West area computer,” a unit made entirely of African American women, she remained with the space agency for 43 years, until her retirement in 1986. Catherine Pedro died on March 4, 2012, at the age of 89.

Kristen Darden (1942-)

Kristen Darden.  © NASA Archives

Kristen Darden. © NASA Archives

Kristen Darden was born in 1942 in North Carolina. Graduated in mathematics at Hampton University in 1962, she spent some time teaching high school students before being hired in 1967 by NASA as a data analyst. She was promoted in 1973 as an aeronautical engineer and specialized in the study of supersonic motion, particularly within the “Sonic Boom Team”, for which she took the lead in 1989.

In 1999, she was appointed Director of the Office of Program Management for the Space Performance Center. She has also worked on various private or government projects, as a technical advisor in the field of aviation. Kristen Darden retired from NASA in March 2007, when she was director of the Office of Strategic Communications and Education at the Langley Research Center.

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