The Hidden Figures of NASA's Space Program: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson
Updated: Jan 14
As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it's important to remember the contributions of African American women in STEM fields, particularly the work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson at NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. These three women, known as the "hidden figures," were instrumental in the early days of America's space program, and their work helped to pave the way for future generations of scientists and engineers.
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, began working at NASA in 1953 as a "computer," a term used at the time to describe people who performed mathematical calculations by hand. Despite facing discrimination and racism in the workplace, she worked on the team that calculated the trajectories for the first American in space, Alan Shepard, and for the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn. Her work was vital to the success of these missions, and her calculations were used to program the electronic computers of the time.
Johnson's work at NASA continued for 35 years, during which she also worked on the Apollo Moon landing program, as well as the Space Shuttle program. She retired in 1986, but her legacy continues to inspire many, particularly women and people of color in STEM fields.
In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for her work in mathematics and her contributions to the space program.
Dorothy Vaughan, also a mathematician, was one of the first African American women to work as a supervisor at NASA. She led a group of African American women mathematicians, known as "human computers," who performed calculations by hand. Despite facing discrimination, she was instrumental in the implementation of electronic computers at NASA, and she trained her team to use the new IBM machine, becoming the first African American woman to do so.
Mary Jackson, an aerospace engineer, began working at NASA in 1951 as a mathematician. She was the first African American woman to be promoted to engineer at NASA, and her work focused on the aerodynamics of supersonic flight. Despite facing discrimination, she also worked on the Apollo Moon landing program.
Their story, along with their colleagues, were known as the "hidden figures" at NASA, as their contributions to the space program were not widely recognized at the time. But in 2016, the book "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly was adapted into a film of the same name, which tells the story of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, and their experiences working at NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. The film starred Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as DoroVaughan, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, and was a commercial and critical success. Hidden Figures brought attention to the contributions of these women and helped to shine a light on the often-overlooked contributions of African American women in STEM fields.
It's worth mentioning that while the film "Hidden Figures" brings attention to the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, it is not a complete representation of all the African American women mathematicians at NASA during the Civil Rights Movement. One of the notable missing figures from the film is Christine Darden, a mathematician, and aerospace engineer, who was also one of the "hidden figures" team and a colleague of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. However, it is important to recognize the contributions of all the women who worked at NASA during that time. To acknowledge that their stories are worth telling, we will be dedicating a separate entry for Christine Darden, where her work and achievements will be highlighted.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let's remember the legacy of these trailblazing women who, despite facing discrimination and racism, made significant contributions to their field and helped to pave the way for future generations. Their story is a reminder that everyone should have equal opportunities, and that diversity and inclusion are essential in any field, particularly in STEM.