Women in Space, The Unsung Heroines Series: Celebrating the Remarkable Lives of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson

Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were three pioneering African-American women who made significant contributions to the field of mathematics and space exploration in the 20th century. Despite facing significant barriers and discrimination, they each overcame obstacles and made remarkable achievements that helped pave the way for future generations of women and people of color in science and technology.

Katherine Goble Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. From a young age, she showed exceptional mathematical ability, but she faced limited opportunities for education and career advancement due to segregation and discrimination. In 1953, Johnson began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. Her work involved performing complex calculations to help design and test spacecraft, including the early Mercury missions that sent the first Americans into space. Johnson’s contributions to the success of these missions were so significant that astronaut John Glenn insisted that she personally check and verify the calculations performed by the computer for his historic orbit around the Earth in 1962. Johnson received numerous awards for her work and was a key figure in the space program until her retirement in 1986.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910 in Missouri and grew up in West Virginia. Despite facing similar obstacles to Johnson, Vaughan was determined to pursue a career in mathematics. In 1943, she was hired as a “computer” at NACA’s Langley Research Center, where she and other African-American women were tasked with performing calculations for engineering projects. Vaughan quickly demonstrated her leadership abilities and was promoted to supervisor of the West Area Computing unit in 1949, becoming the first African-American supervisor at NACA. She was instrumental in training and mentoring other women in her unit, many of whom went on to make their own contributions to the space program. Vaughan’s work also involved programming early computers, and she helped facilitate the transition from human “computers” to electronic ones. She retired from NASA in 1971, having made a lasting impact on the field of mathematics and the advancement of African-American women in science and technology.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was born in 1921 in Virginia and grew up during the Great Depression. She attended a segregated school and was unable to pursue her dream of becoming an engineer due to a lack of opportunities for African-American women. Instead, Jackson started working at NACA in 1951 as a computer in the segregated West Area Computing unit. She quickly showed her talents and was promoted to engineer in 1958, becoming NASA’s first African-American female engineer. Jackson’s work focused on aerodynamics and she conducted research to help improve aircraft design. She also served as an advocate for other African-American women at NASA, working to break down barriers and create opportunities for their advancement. Jackson retired from NASA in 1985 and continued to be an advocate for education and the advancement of women in science and technology until her death in 2005.

The contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to the field of mathematics and space exploration were significant and far-reaching. They each broke down barriers and overcame discrimination to make important contributions to science and technology, paving the way for future generations of women and people of color to pursue careers in these fields. Their stories were brought to wider attention in the 2016 book and subsequent film Hidden Figures, which brought their achievements to a new generation and renewed appreciation for their remarkable contributions.

Sources Referenced: 

A&E Networks Television. (2021, January 12). Mary Jackson. Biography.com. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.biography.com/scientists/mary-winston-jackson 

Dorothy Vaughan Obituary (2008) – hampton, VA – Daily Press. Legacy.com. (2008, November 12). Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/dailypress/name/dorothy-vaughan-obituary?id=15017192 

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2023, February 7). Mary Jackson. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Jackson-mathematician-and-engineer 

McFadden, C. (2021, September 20). Dorothy Vaughan: NASA’s “Human computer” and American hero. Interesting Engineering. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://interestingengineering.com/culture/dorothy-vaughan-nasas-human-computer-and-american-hero 

Nielsen, A. E. (2020, September 20). Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910-2008). Black Past. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/vaughan-dorothy-johnson-1910-2008/ 

Shetterly, M. L. (2016, August 30). The hidden black women who helped win the space race. The Cut. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.thecut.com/2016/08/dorothy-vaughan-space-race-c-v-r.html 

Shetterly, M. L. (2016, November 22). Dorothy Vaughan Biography. NASA. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography 

Shetterly, M. L. (2016, November 22). Mary W. Jackson Biography. NASA. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nasa.gov/content/mary-w-jackson-biography 

Shetterly, M. L. (2016, November 22). Katherine Johnson Biography. NASA. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography 

Smith, Y. (Ed.). (2015, November 24). Katherine Johnson: The girl who loved to count. NASA. Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-loved-to-count Warren, W. (1999). Black women scientists in the United States. Indiana University Press.

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