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