Three Female Mathematicians
Today, we would like to highlight the three women who were featured in the recent movie “Hidden Figures”. During the early years of our space program, the three women worked behind the scenes at NASA.
Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She graduated with highest honors from the historically black University, West Virginia State College, at 18 years of age in 1937 with a B.S. in Mathematics and French.
Katherine was selected in 1939 to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia University’s graduate school. She left after the first session to start a family with her husband.
She was hired by NACA (fore runner of NASA) in June of 1953. After two weeks, she was assigned to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. She spent four years analyzing data from flight tests. Her first big NASA task was to compute the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961.
In 1961, she was the first woman to co-author a research report, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position”. In 1962, for John Glenn’s orbital flight, Johnson was specifically asked by Glenn to check the trajectories plotted by the new IBM computer. Johnson also worked in the Apollo program, performing calculations for Apollo’s Lunar Lander. She worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired from NASA in 1986. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015.
Dorothy Vaughan was born on September 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri. She received her B.A. in Mathematics from Wilberforce University in 1929. She was hired by NACA i n 1943 during World
In 1948 she became NACA’s first black supervisor She served as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958. and later became an expert FORTRAN programmer. Dorothy died in 2008.
Mary Jackson was born April 9, 1921 in Hampton, Virginia. She received her B.S. in Mathematics and Physical Science from Hampton Institute in 1942.
She began working for NASA in 1951 as a computer. After two years as a computer, she went to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. In order to become an engineer she needed to take classes at segregated Hampton High School. After petitioning the City of Hampton for permission to take the classes at the all white school, she received her engineering degree and was promoted to engineer in 1958.
She was NASA’s first African American female engineer, and, according to NASA, she may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field.
Later, in 1979, after being unable to get a promotion into management-level grades as a woman, Mary decided that she would take the position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager where she worked to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. She retired in 1985. Mary died in 2005.