Apr 26th 2017

Hidden Figures: The Unsung Heroes Behind NASA’s Breakthroughs


Hidden Figures” is a movie that tells the true story of a team of African American women whose work led to several breakthroughs in space travel. The film focuses on three black women — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson — who calculated mathematical data that was essential to the first successful space missions. Their careers launched during the late 1950s and early 1960s, a pivotal era when the Space Race overlapped with the Civil Rights Movement.

Vaughan, Jackson and Johnson were part of a group of black female mathematicians at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Known as “computers” before electronic computers existed, they performed thousands of calculations by hand while working in the West Area Computing Unit (West Unit). The women in “Hidden Figures” helped define orbits, which required difficult calculations that are still done by today’s top aerospace experts at Northrop Grumman and other firms.

Khali Cannad, Aerospace Systems Engineer at Northrop Grumman.

One of those experts is Khali Cannad, a software engineer at Northrop Grumman. “As an African-American woman, an engineer trained in orbital dynamics, and a space geek, I can relate to the passion and problems these amazing mathematicians faced,” Cannad says. “Growing up, I was obsessed by the shuttle launches, and I was a big fan of sci-fi shows, such as ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, but it was rare to see women, much less women of color, who were known for their accomplishments in the fields of space travel and technology.

Mae Jemison was a big role model for me, but she was one of the very few. My mind was set on being another, so I worked hard at the George Washington Carver High School of Engineering & Science in Philadelphia and then at Purdue University where I got my engineering degree. But as hard as I worked, I still ran into the disadvantages of often being the ‘only’.

“Still, I didn’t live in a world where Jim Crow laws required that African-American women be segregated from their white colleagues, so we’ve certainly come a long way,” Cannad adds. “The West Unit team broke technological barriers which helped to lessen the double adversity of being black women in the United States. Those of us who have followed in their footsteps don’t have it nearly as difficult as they did, and I am grateful for that.”

Dr. Mae C. Jemison (NASA)

The Innovators

Dorothy Vaughan was a former math teacher who became NASA’s first African American Supervisor. As head of the West Area Computing Unit, she supervised human computers and had the foresight to teach herself and her team how to run the IBM machines that would soon make their original jobs obsolete. Vaughan learned the Fortran programming language and was one of the earliest experts on electronic computing.

Mary Jackson was the country’s first black female engineer. She spent two years as a mathematician on Vaughan’s team. Then she conducted hands-on experiments to help engineer and test NASA’s first large supersonic pressure tunnel, which was used to test space vehicles and military aircraft. Despite her talents, Jackson had to receive special permission just to attend the segregated graduate courses in math and physics that were part of a training program to become an engineer. In 1979, she became Langley’s Women’s Program Manager and she eventually retired as an aeronautical engineer after a 34-year career.

From left: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Winston Jackson. (NASA)

Katherine Goble Johnson‘s work influenced every major space program. She calculated the launch window for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Although she didn’t always receive the credit she deserved, Johnson’s unique skills were undeniable, and she gained a reputation for being the most accurate mathematician.

Before John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, he specifically requested that Johnson verify the calculations for the Friendship 7 mission. The math had been done by the electronic computers, and he trusted Johnson more than the new machines. Johnson also calculated trajectories of the Space Shuttle and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, helped to write the first textbook on space, and worked on the heroic Apollo 13 rescue mission.

Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (NASA)

The famous mission’s lunar module (LM) was built by Grumman Corporation (now part of the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems) and designed to land on the moon. It was only meant to carry two astronauts for 45 hours. However, the mission had to be aborted when an oxygen tank on the Command and Service Module exploded. Johnson contributed to the effort that turned the LM into a “lifeboat” that carried all three Apollo 13 crew members for 90 hours and ultimately ensured their safe return to Earth. Finally, at age 97, she received the 2015 National Medal of Freedom and in 2016, NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor.

The Legacy Continues

In a 1962 speech, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

NASA was ultimately successful because they utilized the full extent of their talent pool. They found the best minds for the unique and challenging tasks at hand. There is still a vast amount of space to be explored, and today’s aerospace experts continue to crunch numbers to ensure that we get there and return safely.

Mathematicians and engineers continue the work that the “hidden figures” started. Orbital analysts now have the benefit of using electronic computers and advanced software, but that doesn’t make it easy. Teams at NASA and technology firms such as Northrop Grumman provide and analyze orbit data for launch operations and managing satellites that are already in orbit. Now, aerospace experts are looking deeper into space, as they prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond.

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