Dorothy Vaughan

Image: Human Computer Project Birth: September 20, 1910 Death: November 10, 2008 Specialty: Math Major Contributions: Led West Area Computers First African-American manager at NASA Expert in FORTRAN

Image: Human Computer Project
Birth: September 20, 1910
Death: November 10, 2008
Specialty: Math
Major Contributions:
Led West Area Computers
First African-American manager at NASA
Expert in FORTRAN

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When President Kennedy proclaimed that men would walk on the moon, the word “computer” still referred to humans, usually women, who did the complex calculations necessary for the mission.  And at NASA’s Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, some of the most talented of those women were part of the West Area Computers, a group of African-American female mathematicians led by Dorothy Vaughan.

Vaughan was born in 1910, and studied math at Wilberforce University in Ohio.  She wanted to continue to graduate school at Howard University, but the Great Depression changed her prospects, and she became a math teacher in Farmville, Virginia.  She took a job at NACA in 1943, believing it to be a temporary position to help the war effort.  She arrived at Langley when the agency was still segregated.

In 1949, she became the acting supervisor of the West Area Computers and two years later she was given the full title of section head, becoming the first African-American manager at NASA and one of the only women supervisors.  She is remembered for both her math and management skills.  Engineers looked to her to recommend the right human computer for their project, and would request her specifically if the work was difficult.  She would speak up on behalf of both white and black women at the agency for both promotions and pay raises.

Eventually electronic computing became more prevalent, and the Analysis and Computation Division was formed.  Vaughan joined this new group and learned computer programming, working in languages like FORTRAN.  She contributed to the Scout Project, testing a launch vehicle that was used from 1961 to 1994.  She retired in 1971, and once said that working at NASA was like “being on the cutting edge of something very exciting.” She passed away in November of 2008.

There were 80 African-Americans in the NASA human computer program, and they did difficult calculations that helped make the Apollo missions a success. The West Area Computers knew they could contribute, and found a chance to prove their worth.  Their stories will be shared in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and a film adaptation of the book is slated to be released in January 2017.

Written by Mary Ratliff

Sources:

Observer: Meet the Black Female Mathematicians Who Helped America Win the Space Race

NASA: Dorothy Vaughan Biographical Data

B—- Media: African American Women Worked as Some of NASA’s First Computers

The Human Computer Project: Dorothy Vaughan

New York Magazine: The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win The Space Race

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures Official Trailer (YouTube)

See Also:

Introductions Necessary: Katherine Johnson

Introductions Necessary: Mary Jackson

Mental Floss: The Black Female Mathematicians Who Sent Astronauts to Space

Wikipedia: Dorothy Vaughan

NASA Langley CRGIS: Hidden Figures: The Female Mathematicians of NACA and NASA (YouTube)

NASA: Human Computers

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures