Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
“Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.”
Black folks they didn’t teach us about in school, day 5
In the last year or so I’ve learned an awful lot about just how much I never learned. My plan is to write up a short piece each day this month on an important or influential black figure from history beyond the whitewashed MLK/Rosa/Malcolm/G.W. Carver bits that we always got in school, because I think it’s important for white kids to know about things beyond themselves and it’s important for black kids to know things about themselves.
Plenty of little kids have astronauts as heroes. Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Sally Ride come to mind. My older brother, who is a huge nerd, once tried to fistfight me in a bar because he thought I had insulted Buzz Aldrin. Space is such a mystifying thing that it’s hard not to be enthralled by tales of the men and women who breach our atmosphere and explore it.
One name I had never heard until recently was that of Ronald McNair. McNair was one of the astronauts on the doomed Challenger launch 30 years ago, so when his name is mentioned, it’s usually in that context: as a tragic figure. But man, was he so much more than that.
McNair was the second African-American to go into space. On his first trip, he played his saxophone on board, making him quite possibly the coolest person to ever board a space shuttle.
NPR’s profile of McNair from the 25th anniversary of his death goes into great detail about his refusal to let the odds dictate what he would and would not try. Perhaps no story about McNair says it better than this:
“When he was 9 years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library,” Carl tells his friend Vernon Skipper.
The library was public, Carl says — “but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959.”
“So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ‘Who is this Negro?’
"So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.
"Well, this old librarian, she says, 'This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, 'Well, I would like to check out these books.’
"She says, 'Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’
"So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, 'I’ll wait.’ ”
McNair graduated from North Carolina A&T and went on to MIT, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics. He applied and was accepted into the astronaut program. He had planned to teach physics at the University of South Carolina, one of the schools that had turned him down for undergrad because of his race, when he returned from the Challenger mission.
That dream was never realized, but in its place, his family established the McNair Scholars Program, which has helped more than 60,000 disadvantaged students attend college since that tragic day. A ridiculously brave man with a ridiculously strong legacy.
In the first and third images above, Hubble is seen undergoing testing at Goddard. The first photo is Hubble in the Vertical Assembly and Test Area and the second is Hubble undergoing final assembly at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California plant.
For more on Hubble’s 25th anniversary, click here.
Over four decades after the last Apollo mission, a space enthusiast and archivist in Virginia just shared 8,400 previously unreleased high-resolution photos from this historical time of space exploration.
July 20, 1976 - Viking 1 makes first Martian landing.
Paving the way for generations of Martian landers and orbiters, NASA’s Viking 1 mission became the first spacecraft to safely land on the Red Planet’s surface on this day in 1976.
Following launch on a Titan IIIE rocket, Viking’s 10-month cruise to Mars culminated in orbit insertion on June 19. Landing was initially planned for the United State’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, but initial reconnaissance of the landing site proved to be too rough for the spacecraft. Landing was delayed to July 20th at Chryse Planitia.
Two 1,270 pound landers complimented two orbiters as part of NASA’s Viking program. Viking 1 launched on August 20, 1975 and landed on July 20, 1976, while Viking 2 launched on September 9, 1975 and landed on September 3, 1976.
The first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars showing one of Viking 1′s landing pads.
Viking’s science instruments provided the first in-situ, or ground based observations of Martian seismic, atmospheric, and chemical activity. Since the biological compatibility of Mars’ surface was completely unknown at the time, both Viking landers carried instruments to directly test of organic life. Of the four, three instruments returned negative results while one returned a positive result.
This discrepancy was first attributed to the chemical reactions of inorganic compounds in the Martian soil, but has been disputed in recent years as data from other Martian missions has been analyzed.
Viking 1 far outlasted its designed operational lifetime of 90 days, transmitting data until November 11, 1982. Upon its deactivation, it was named the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station after the leader of the program’s imaging team.
Viking 1′s Surface Sampler Boom prepares to deliver a soil sample to the spacecraft’s science instruments.
Morgan Watson started working at @nasa‘s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1964. He described it as “its own little world.” But the facility, located in Huntsville, Alabama, was mere hours from Selma and Montgomery—two prominent battlegrounds in the Civil Rights Movement. Watson himself contributed to a little known piece of Civil Rights era history: He was one of NASA’s first African American engineers. He’s profiled in the book We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, by Steven Moss and Richard Paul.
Racial integration occurred at NASA facilities throughout the South in the 1960s. Christine Darden, for example (pictured above), was an African-American mathematician who joined the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in 1967. Watson and Darden, along with Steven Moss, join Science Friday to discuss the work of African-American scientists at NASA during the Civil Rights Movement.
Tomorrow is the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
Soon after their historic steps, they received a phone call from President Nixon in the Oval Office. To celebrate the occasion, we’re teaming up with the NASA History Office to tweet out the lunar call between the President and astronauts.
Space a Shuttle Atlantis during launch. Atlantis is currently on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I have seen the display and it is first rate. A fitting display for a beautiful space craft. Definitely worth a trip to see it, as well as the Saturn V there.
“I realized, really for the first time, that people who didn’t even know me were wishing for my success — hoping to share in the pride of future accomplishments, but even more important, willing to provide encouragement in the face of disappointments. I hope that by sharing my experiences, others will be inspired to set high goals for themselves.”
2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 24, 1990 and transmitting its first image on May 20 the same year, Hubble has changed the way astronomers perceive the universe. The data it has collected has been the basis for over 10,000 scientific articles, and the images it takes have been found on wall prints, desktop backgrounds and other products countless times. The idea of a telescope the size of Hubble began in 1946 with astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, but it took nearly 50 years for Spitzer’s idea to go from paper to the cultural and scientific icon that is the Hubble. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that the idea gained traction in the scientific community. In the late 70’s the United States Congress was finally convinced to fund the project. In the 80’s there were myriad technological issues and redesigns. Finally the telescope was launched in 1990, but that still wasn’t the major milestone. It came with a design flaw in the lenses. Not until 1993 did the telescope work properly. But when it did – wow.
Vital to the creation of the telescope was Dr. Nancy Roman, sometimes called the “mother of Hubble.” Roman was one of few women working at NASA at the time, and she was the chief of the Astronomy and Relativity Programs for the space agency until her retirement in 1979. Born in 1925, Roman had a strong fascination with the stars, forming an astronomy club with neighborhood friends, and battled stereotypes about women throughout her education, eventually earning a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago in 1949. NASA was formed July 28, 1958 and while working for the Navy Research Laboratory, Roman was offered a job at NASA as the program director for the agency’s astronomy program in 1959.
As the first chief of the Astronomy and Relativity program for NASA, Roman was responsible for laying the groundwork in space-based astronomy, as well as convincing astronomers to support the idea of an orbiting telescope, rather than a terrestrial one. Slowly but surely, Roman was able to build support for NASA’s astronomy program, and she served as Chief Scientist on the agency’s Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) program in the late 1960’s. The OAO’s that were launched provided Roman and NASA with valuable information on what it would take to successfully operate a telescope in space. At this stage in her career, Roman was responsible for launching Ultraviolet and X-Ray based satellites into space, making advances in science and broadening the appeal of space astronomy.
In 1962, at a meeting hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, the concept of a telescope with a large three meter lens was proposed. Roman initially opposed the idea, arguing that technology hadn’t advanced to the point that it would be feasible, and instead opted to focus on the OAO projects already on the boards. By 1965 engineers and aerospace companies began proposing designs for a manned space telescope without input from astronomers. Lyman Spitzer’s idea of a orbital space telescope had gained traction, but it would be Roman who carried it out. With the aerospace industry turning out designs deemed unacceptable by astronomers and NASA employees designing goals for a space telescope, Roman bridged the gap between the two groups. In her own words, she decided to organize a joint committee of engineers and scientists to develop a schematic that would “satisfy astronomers’ requirements and still meet the feasibility concerns of the engineers.” After overseeing the programs to determine if the Hubble would actually work and designing the device, Roman also assisted in lobbying Congress by providing written testimony and meeting with congressional staff to secure the funds needed to make the telescope a reality.
Eventually Roman left NASA in 1979 to work with contractors at Goddard Space Center. Today, Nancy Roman lives in Bethesda, Maryland and still attends lectures, as well as spending her time motivating young women to pursue education in the sciences. Without her initiative, determination and leadership, it is doubtful that the Hubble could have become reality.
The Project Apollo Archive uploaded more than 10,000 images the astronauts took during NASA’s Apollo
Missions of the 1960s and 70s. The collection includes every photo shot with the Hasselblad
cameras on the lunar surface, from Earth and
lunar orbit, as well as during the journey between the two.
photos are unprocessed versions of the original scans so it takes time to go through the albums (which there are over hundred) but I really recommend to look at least some of them. I totally feel Alan Shepard now.
STS-1: The First Space Shuttle Mission, April 12, 1981
Thirty-five years ago on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia launched as part of STS-1, the first Space Shuttle mission, with the crew consisting of mission commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen. It was NASA’s first crewed space flight since the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975.