The African American Women Behind NASA’s Early Launches

This may come as a shock to some, but it shouldn’t: History, and science, is not the domain of white men alone.


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The year was 1957 and societal change was brimming with glory. Segregation was officially outlawed as illegal and employment was available to citizens of various backgrounds. The notion of equal opportunity was in its formative stages as more people of color sought out highly esteemed careers. During this time, Sputnik shocked the world as the first artificial satellite to be released into orbit.

Langley Research Center. Image Source: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/va1794.photos.192358p

Although noteworthy, Sputnik wasn’t the only groundbreaking development to make scientific history. However, this sensational advancement created an opportunity for immense social change. Due to this launch, NASA, formally known as NACA began shifting their focus towards discovering more scientific information about space travel. In order to accomplish this feat, a stark expert in mathematical calculations was needed.

Katherine Johnson- An American Genius

Image Source: NASA

Blooming with spunk and intelligence was African-American mathematician, Katherine Johnson. Her 1958 contributions to the iconic compilation of text called “Notes on Space Technology” was the blueprint for creating The Space Task Group. Johnson solved complex equations that predicted launch timings for aeronautics that would eventually be placed into outer space.

The success of the iconic Freedom 7 mission of 1961 is attributed to the trajectory calculations of Katherine Johnson. Before the technological advancements of calculators, handwritten estimates were used to solve math problems.

Katherine Johnson not only provided accurate trajectory calculations for future missions, she also developed navigational systems using stars, used mathematical equations for space capsules to orbit the moon, and authored over 25 essays. Her revolutionary complement to the advancement of space exploration enabled her to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom granted by former president Barack Obama. Although her journey to achievements beyond earth is mind-blowing, the story behind how Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues changed NASA serves as a triumphant inspiration to little girls of color everywhere.

War Brings About New Career Developments

NASA began hiring women in their mathematics department shortly after World War II began. A rather sexist conclusion was drawn as women were deemed detail-oriented with petite hands. Because of this notion, women were assigned to calculate endless equations on the Friden calculator.

This unit resembled a typewriter and allowed users the ability to solve mathematical equations mechanically. Ironically, the women working in these departments were called “computers”. Since segregation was still a major part of American society, African American computers were assigned to work in a separate area from their White colleagues.

Mary Jackson- Never Taking No for An Answer

Mary Jackson. Photo Source: NASA