In honor of National Pi Day, we are paying tribute to Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA and contributed to American winning the great space race.
Her Story: Mary Jackson (1921-2005) NASA’s first black female engineer. Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia where she graduated from high school with the highest honors. She earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science from Hampton University in 1942. After graduation, Mary Jackson taught math in public schools in Maryland, which was still segregated at the time. She began tutoring high school and college students in mathematics, a passion she committed herself too for the rest of her life.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recruited Jackson in 1951. She started as a research mathematician, or computer, in the segregated West Area Computing Section. Jackson began taking graduate-level physics and mathematics classes at night in order to become an engineer. In 1958, she was promoted to aerospace engineer and became NASA’s first black female engineer. Over the next 20 years, Jackson reached the highest senior-level title within the engineering department.
But Jackson didn’t stop there, she decided to reach back and help others up. In 1979 she took a demotion to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field where she worked to elevate women in science, engineering, and mathematics at NASA.
Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.
Her Story: Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was one of the first African-American women to work a NASA as a Scientist. She was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia and enrolled in high school at age 10. At age 18 she graduated with the highest honors from college earning bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and french. She became a human-computer for NASA, initially assigned tho the West Area Computers, then reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division. Due to state segregation laws, Johnson and the other African-American women were required to work, take breaks and use restrooms completely separate from their white peers. This was not only a logistical hardship, but it was also racist and demeaning.
Johnson persisted and moved into the Spacecraft Controls Branch where she calculated the trajectory of r the 1961 space flight that put the first American in space. She calculated the launch for the 1961 Mercury mission and backup navigation fin case of electronic failures. John Glenn insisted on having Johnson verify the calculation for his orbit around Earth when NASA first moved to an automated computer system. She also helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight. It was Johnson’s work that helped the Apollo 13 crew return safely to Earth in 1970 when the mission was aborted. Her calculations were essential to the Space Shuttle program and for the mission to Mars.
In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019.
Her Story: Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910-2008) was the first black supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later NASA) and helped send the first satellites into space. Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri and graduated class valedictorian of her class in 1925 at age 15. She graduated cum laude from college at age 19 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She taught mathematics in the public school for 14 years during the Great Depression to support her family.
In 1943, Vaughan began her career as a programmer and mathematician. She specialized in calculations for flight paths and digital computer programing. Vaughn believed that machine computers would be the way of the future, so she began teaching the other women in her group programming language so that they would be ahead of the curve. In 1961, when NASA introduced the first digital computers, Vaughan and the other women were ready. Her contribution to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program was critical to its success.
In 2019, Vaughan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Vaughan Crater on the far side of the Moon was named in her honor.
The 2016 movie Hidden Figures tells the incredible story of these three women. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson crossed gender and racial lines, to bring their talent and brilliance to the space program. Their names and contributions deserve to be kept alive and given a prominent place in America’s history.