Welcome to another Women in History Crush Wednesday!! Also, happy Black History Month and Valentine’s Day!! As promised in yesterday’s Galentine’s Day post, we’re going to talk about the brilliant women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures (which is a fantastic movie that you should try to see right this second if you haven’t already done so). This week’s woman crushes are Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, some of NASA’s leading minds in the height of the space race.
First up, Katherine Johnson.
Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia on August 26th, 1918, Johnson’s mathematical genius was obvious at an early age. She skipped several grades in her early schooling and started high school at the age of thirteen. By eighteen, she was studying mathematics at West Virginia State College. After graduating in 1937, she took a position as a public school math teacher. During desegregation efforts in the late 1930s, Johnson was invited to study in the West Virginia University graduate math program, but she left the program after the first semester to start a family with her husband James Goble. Johnson returned to teaching when her three daughters were older. In 1953, Johnson moved her family to Newport News, Virginia so she could start work as a computer in all-black computing division at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA, later renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA) Langley Research Center. Her first assignment was with the Flight Research Division, where she used flight test data to find solutions to wake turbulence. Her husband died of cancer right as she finished her research for this assignment in 1956. She remarried to James Johnson in 1959. Johnson’s next assignment was running calculations for the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division in 1958, and it was through this assignment that she analyzed flight trajectory for Alan Shepard’s 1961 Freedom 7 mission. In 1960 Johnson co-authored with Ted Skopinski the “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position,” a report about the calculations for orbital spacecraft return, and became the first woman at NASA to receive credit as an author of a research report.
“Like what you do and then you will do your best”
Despite already playing an integral role in the American space race for many years, Johnson’s most well-known accomplishment was her recalculation of the orbit flight patterns of John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission. This event was portrayed in the movie – the IBM machine that had replaced the human calculators was prone to error, and Glenn refused to launch until Johnson confirmed the flight calculations. Over the next twenty-four years, Johnson contributed to the Apollo 11 and 13 missions, Project Apollo Lunar Lander, Space Shuttle program, and Earth Resources Satellite, in addition to writing over twenty-five more research reports. In 1986, Johnson retired from NASA’s Langley campus. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015 and had a research building at the Langley NASA campus named after her in 2017. She will turn one hundred years old this August, and still lives in Hampton, Virginia with her husband of almost sixty years.
Next, Dorothy Vaughan.
Born Dorothy Johnson on September 20th, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, Vaughan, too, was a math prodigy. She attended grade school in Morgantown, West Virginia, and graduated high school in 1925 with a full scholarship to Wilberforce University. After graduating from college at the age of nineteen with degrees in mathematics and French, Vaughan took a high school math teaching position in Farmville, Virginia. She married Howard Vaughan in 1932 and had six children. In 1943, Vaughan moved her family to Newport News, Virginia to do temporary work on World War II defense calculations at the NACA Langley campus. After President FDR’s Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the defense industry, Langley took a permanent position at NACA in the West Area all-black computing division. In 1949, Vaughan was promoted to the head of the unit, becoming the first black supervisor at NACA. She served in this position for about ten years and became well known for her advocacy for her fellow computers wages and promotions as well as for her great recommendations of women for different projects, which in her recommendations and support of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson.
“I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”
As NACA became NASA and desegregated their campuses, Vaughan began working on electronic computing and technology with the Analysis and Computation Division. She became a FORTRAN programming and language expert and co-wrote a method handbook for calculation machines with computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock. As well as her groundbreaking technology work, Vaughan contributed to the Scout Project and many flight path calculations. After twenty-eight years at the Langley NASA campus, Vaughan retired in 1971. In addition to her work at NASA, Vaughan was an active member of her church’s music department and the Washington D.C. YWCA. She died of natural causes on November 10th, 2008 in Hampton, Virginia.
And last but certainly not least, Mary Jackson.
Born Mary Winston on April 9th, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia, Jackson showed an early commitment to and love of science and service. She graduated from high school with high honors and from the Hampton Institute in 1942 with degrees in mathematics and physical sciences. After graduating, Jackson held a series of jobs as a math teacher, a USO Club receptionist, a Hampton Institute Health Department bookkeeper, and a secretary at Fort Monroe. In 1951, she was hired as a computer in NACA’s West Area computing unit, which at that point was under the supervision of Dorothy Vaughan. After two years, Jackson was brought onto a string of wind and pressure tunnel experiments by engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. Together, the pair published reports on nose angle effects on cones at supersonic speeds, boundary layer transition groups, and pressure distributions and waves in subsonic flows, all of which were crucial for missile designs and spacecraft flight calculations. Czarnecki suggested that Jackson apply for a promotion into the NACA engineering department, which required graduate courses. The only place Jackson could take these courses while continuing to work at the Langley campus was through the University of Virginia’s segregated night school held at a local high school. Jackson had to petition for permission to attend the classes and had completed them by 1958. With the promotion, Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Jackson continued working with Czarnecki and running her own engineering tests and experiments, authoring over a dozen research reports and contributing to Project Mercury. In 1979, Jackson grew increasingly frustrated with her inability to be promoted within the engineering department due to gender restrictions, and so decided to take positions as NASA’s Federal Women’s Program Manager and Affirmative Action Program Manager, where she hired and mentored generations of women and people of color in science, math, and technology careers. She retired from the NASA Langley campus in 1985, and was awarded the Apollo Group Achievement Award. Alongside her work at NASA, Jackson volunteered with the Hampton King Street Community Center’s youth science program, annual United Way campaigns, local Girl Scout troops, and the National Technical Association. She had two children with her husband Levi Jackson, and the couple acted as mentors for youth interested in STEM careers in their community for decades. Jackson died of natural causes on February 11th, 2005 in Hampton, Virginia. In a recent show of honor, a school in Utah changed its name from Andrew Jackson Elementary to Mary W Jackson Elementary.
These women are so incredibly inspiring to me in how they prevailed past societal race and gender restrictions, were leaders in their fields, and fostered generations of women in science and mathematics for years to come. I get chills every time I think about their amazing work and talents and genius and courage. To learn more about the bright lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, check out these NASA, Biography, Makers, Popular Mechanics, Black Past, Interesting Engineering and Wikipedia articles.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!