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Herstory: NASA’s Hidden “Computers in Skirts”

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Katherine Johnson is an African American mathematician who assisted NASA in sending the astronauts into space in the early 1960’s and to the moon by 1969.  Johnson was born on August 26th 1918 in West Virginia. She had always been a bright student having graduated college at just 18 years of age and began her work in the field of aeronautics by the age of 34. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and then had an Oscar winning movie, “Hidden Figures”, based on her life and successes.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In an interview with NASA, Johnson said, “The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”

Johnson was not the only woman that had a part in this great NASA accomplishment. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were two very bright women that paved the way for minorities and accomplished great things in the field of aeronautics.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity in the defense industry and thus, Vaughan became one of the first African Americans employed as a mathematical at NASA. However, local law prevented “colored” people from working alongside their white counterparts. She managed the West Area Computing Group, a group made entirely of African American female mathematicians. Vaughan became an advocate for women’s advancement in the workplace, often supporting white women as well, according to Biography.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer working with wind tunnels and analyzing data. In the 1950s, she worked in the West Area Computing Group with Dorothy Vaughn. In 1953, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division. In the 1970s, Jackson worked to help women and other minorities advance their careers.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Being African American females in the time of heavy discrimination and sexism made their journey tough. But due to their perseverance and capabilities, these three strong women were able to make full use of the little opportunities. Their greatest accomplishments were calculating the trajectories for Apollo 11 and contributing to the safe return of Apollo 13.

I began at Her Campus USF as a writer in Spring 2017. Then, served as Senior Editor in Fall 2017 and currently serve as the Editor-in-Chief. I am passionate about writing, social media, and graphic design. I am a portrait photographer and a self-proclaimed makeup junkie. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @cc_red13 to connect!
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