Recognizing the Achievements of Women in Science

By: Naireen Hussain

Until recently, the contributions of three remarkable scientists went largely unnoticed. These three helped with one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments: taking humans to space. However, with the movie Hidden Figures, the works of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Let’s take a look at the real-life women behind this Oscar-nominated film, and their stellar accomplishments that took us into space.

[cp_dropcaps]Dorothy Vaughan[/cp_dropcaps], a respected mathematician, was NASA’s first African-American manager. She transitioned into the field of aeronautics in 1943, after leaving her job as a high school math teacher to join the NASA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. She joined the ‘West Area Computing’ team, a segregated team of all black female mathematicians. Due to her outstanding performance, in 1949, she was promoted to lead the team, thus earning her the position of becoming the first African-American manager. After the segregated offices were abolished, Vaughan continued to work for NASA, and went on to contribute to the Scout Launch Vehicle program, a key tool to set up satellites in space, and greatly helped America advance in the space race against the Soviet Union [1]. She retired a few years later in 1971.

[cp_dropcaps]Katherine Johnson[/cp_dropcaps], a research mathematician, completed her bachelors in mathematics in 1937, and then went on to become one of three black students to first participate in a pilot program aiming to racially integrate students in West Virginia’s graduate program in 1939. However, she left shortly after to start a family, and then went onto teaching at a public school. It wasn’t until much later that she left to work as a ‘human computer’ for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1953, also under Dorothy Vaughan. Her job was to manually measure and calculate the results of wind tunnel tests, as this was the age before the electrical computer, and this had to be done with pen and paper. Even after NASA began using computers, she personally double-checked the calculations for launching Alan Shepard, one of the first Americans to orbit the Earth. She a received many awards for her contributions to bringing America into space, with the most notable being the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s most prestigious civilian award, presented to her by former President Barack Obama.   [2]

[cp_dropcaps]Mary Jackson[/cp_dropcaps], like Vaughan, joined NASA after leaving her former position in teaching. She joined the ‘West Area Computing’ team, then under Vaughan’s supervision. After a couple years, she received an offer to work for Kazimierz Czarnecki, an engineer working on supersonic wind tunnels. This led her to switch into a career of engineering, which was no easy feat. To do this, she required graduate education on top of her dual bachelors degree in math and physics, which was then only offered to white students. She obtained a special permission to study, completed her degree, earned a promotion at NASA as the first black female engineer. However, despite her brilliant work, she was unable to be promoted to higher levels, and thus in 1979, she took on the position of Langley Federal Woman’s Program Manager. Even though accepting this position was a demotion, she was able to advocate and push for hiring and promoting women at NASA. She also acted as a mentor for other new Langley recruits trying to advance their careers. She retired in 1985. Among her achievements is receiving the Apollo Group Achievement Award [3], rewarded to those who have contributed extensively to Apollo’s success.

The contributions of these three women paved the way for countless other women to pursue a career in aerospace. They struggled and worked hard to improve the conditions of the next generation of female and scientists of colour.   This is one of the many reasons why we reflect back on Black History Month so that their contributions are not forgotten.