These Black Women Helped Send Us to the Moon

17:36 minutes

Engineer Christine Darden in the wind tunnel where she conducted tests of airplane designs for her research on sonic boom in 1975. Credit: NASA Lanley
Engineer Christine Darden in the wind tunnel where she conducted tests of airplane designs for her research on sonic boom in 1975. Credit: NASA Lanley

Before NASA, there was NACA—the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, headquartered at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. And before there were computers, there were human computers—mathematicians hired to double-check the numbers and calculations the engineers relied on.

In the 1940s, at the height of World War II, these human computers were women, and their calculations served the war effort to build more effective airplanes. Working in female-designated office spaces, they often received problems to solve with no context of the greater project at stake. Other times, male colleagues recruited them for specific projects. In the early years, some of these women were promoted to “mathematicians”—a status on par with entry-level male employees. But some eventually went on to work as engineers, solving the problems that got humans into space, on the moon, and beyond.

And as many as 50 or more of the women who worked at Langley in those decades were African American women.

Dorothy Vaughan, the first black section lead at the NACA's Langley Research Center. She managed the all-black West Area Computing Unit for nearly a decade. Credit: The Family of Dorothy J. Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan, the first black section lead at the NACA’s Langley Research Center. She managed the all-black West Area Computing Unit for nearly a decade. Credit: the Family of Dorothy J. Vaughan

“Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine,” writes Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father was friends with many of these mathematicians, in her new book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. (The book was also the inspiration for a feature film to be released in January 2017.)

Shetterly tells the stories of women like Katherine Johnson, the physicist whose careful calculations put astronaut John Glenn into orbit and brought him safely back again; Dorothy Vaughan, who was NACA’s first black section leader and headed up the all-black West Computing group for more than a decade; and Mary Jackson, who rose from mathematician to aerospace engineer, working on problems of air flow while also helping other African American women achieve deserved career advancement.

Also joining Ira is Christine Darden, another engineer and mathematician whose story Shetterly recounts. After joining NACA in 1967 as a human computer, Darden moved into the labs in 1972 as an engineer and spent decades working on the “sonic boom” of supersonic travel. She and Shetterly recount the unique history of NASA’s African American mathematicians, set against the backdrop of World War II, the Cold War, the ensuing space race, and the Civil Rights movement.

Segment Guests

Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly is an American nonfiction writer. Her first book, Hidden Figures, is being made into a film, also called Hidden Figures. She’s based in Charlottesville, VA.

Christine Darden

Christine Darden is former director of the Office of Strategic Communications and Education at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Heard on the Air

Read an excerpt from Hidden Figures.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Before NASA there was NACA back in the ’40s– 1940s and ’50s. It was the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, with headquarters at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. NACA’s job was to make more efficient airplanes, having engineers who worked to solve problems like how to break the sound barrier, what to do about the sonic boom that you created. And supporting those engineers, or working as hard as they could to be those engineers, were dozens of African-American women mathematicians, whose contributions could have easily been lost to history except for Margot Lee Shetterly.

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton. Her father was part of the scientific community. And these women passed through her house and they were part of her community. And in her new book about NASA’s African-American human computers, as they were known, she writes, “growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown, like mine.”

Margot Lee Shetterly joins us today. She’s the author of Hidden Figures– the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. She’s also founder of the Human Computer Project, which works to archive these women’s stories online. Welcome to Science Friday, Margot.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Also with us is Dr. Christine Darden, one of the NASA women Margot writes about, former computer, former engineer, former Director of the Office of Strategic Communications and Education at Langley. Welcome back, Dr. Darden.

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Thank you, Ira. It’s good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Margot, tell us what drew you to this story. I can usually see from the book that it was all family-related, wasn’t it?

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Yeah, it was, Ira. In fact, as I mentioned in the book, I knew a lot of the women that I wrote about in the book. But also, I knew that there were black scientists and black engineers and female scientists engineers. We talk about our perception of who can be or who is a scientist. I was really fortunate to have those role models growing up. And it was really, as I mentioned, this moment with my husband– we were home for Christmas.

My dad was talking about a number of the women, including Katherine Johnson, which is a name that many people know, I think, at this point, and her contributions to Langley, to NASA, to the space program. And he was like, wait a minute, this is a huge story, and nobody knows about it. So for me, it was something that to a certain extent I took for granted and that one moment really saw that those women and that history and how I grew up with fresh eyes. And once I started asking questions, like, well, how did they come to Langley, why were there so many black women there, I just couldn’t stop chasing the story.

IRA FLATOW: Well, take us back to the ’30s. How did NACA first begin hiring women to do math and then start hiring black women? What was the motivation there?

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Right so as you mentioned earlier, the job of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was to make planes faster, more efficient, safer. And there was a lot of testing involved in that. Sometimes they did free-flight testing, which was they’d attach instruments to a plane and fly the plane.

Sometimes they parked the plane or plane parts– a wing or the body of a plane– in a wind tunnel and blew the air over the part or over the plane to simulate flight. But in either circumstance, there was so much data from the instruments that had been attached to the plane, that all of these numbers needed to be analyzed, the same way we have lots of data in so many different disciplines these stay days. It needs to be analyzed.

It’s tedious work, but it’s really necessary. And the engineers were doing it. So what they decided is, what if we had a computing pool, the same way we have a secretarial pool, and we’ll distribute this work to the members of the pool. So in 1935, they hired five women, in this case, they were white women, to start processing all of this data that came from the aeronautical testing. And it was a hit.

The women were extremely good at their jobs. It freed the engineers to do things other than the computing. There was a real bonus in the fact that they paid the women less than they paid the men, even if they were doing very similar work. And it created huge efficiencies in the aeronautical research industry. And this is a time when airplanes are becoming more and more a part of the military. And then on the eve of World War II, obviously the airplane was a very significant weapon of war.

It would go on to influence the balance of victory in World War II. So the black women started coming in 1943. And this was two years after a man named A. Philip Randolph, who was a civil rights leader, whose name not as many people know today, but he was very well known in those days, really pushed Roosevelt to open the then segregated federal government, the civil service defense industry, opened those jobs to African-Americans.

So two years after Roosevelt signed an executive order desegregating the government, the first five black women walked into the gates at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

IRA FLATOW: And Christine Darden, you were one of these women. What is your biggest lasting impression that you keep with you about that job?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Well, the job that I had, I was a little later than 1943, and we were getting ready to walk on the moon. It was the most exciting thing that was happening when I went to NASA. And I actually went into a computing pool that had done all of the test for the reentry of the Apollo back into the atmosphere in the work that I did.

So just to learn what they were doing at NASA was exciting to me. I didn’t really even know what engineers did until I got there and I saw what they were doing. And I was actually doing work for them and understanding a little bit what they were doing.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And did you did you ever aspire to become an engineer while you were working there?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Yes, I did. I, in fact, started to ask my bosses and everything about going to school. And I ultimately went back and got a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at George Washington University.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. And how many women were working with you at any one time? I’m trying to picture your atmosphere there. And I know, reading from the book, reading from Margot’s book, that back in the segregation days, there was sort of a dual life you were living, one as a computer, or an engineer, and then you would go into the cafeteria, and Margo, you talk about this in the book, and then there’d be a segregated area, where the women couldn’t sit with the white people.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Yeah, just to be clear, the segregated era really lasted till the end of the NACA era. So really, when the first black women started in 1943, they did have segregated bathrooms. They had a segregated cafeteria. And they actually worked in a segregated office, which was called the West Area Computing Office.

But when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, which really precipitated the change of the NACA to NASA, the space agency that we know today, that’s really when the segregated facilities came to an end. And that happened 10 years before Dr. Darden got to the center.

IRA FLATOW: You focus on just a few of these women– Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson. What about these women made their stories important to tell in this book?

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Well, first of all, they spent their entire careers– or finished their careers, I should say, because they started their careers as math teachers. But they finished their careers at the Langley Research Center. So it was possible to sort of trace the course of their careers as they fought to get promoted, as NASA started focusing on space and not just aeronautics. So that was one of the things.

The other thing is they had some exceptional achievements. In the case of Dorothy Vaughn, what I discovered is that she was actually the first African-American manager, supervisor, of any gender at Langley or at NASA, all of what would become NASA. Mary Jackson was promoted to be an engineer, making her the first black woman to be an engineer at NASA and possibly in the entire United States.

Katherine Johnson, she’s someone who really stood out for doing the calculations for the early Mercury missions and had a long career, storied career, at Langley. And then Dr. Darden came in and stood on the shoulders of these women and made superb achievements in the field of supersonic flight and sonic boom. So all of those characteristics– and then the fact that in so many ways these women’s lives intersected other aspects of the 20th century, including the civil rights movement, Brown versus Board of Ed decision, so many aspects of their lives made for good science and good storytelling.

IRA FLATOW: Christine Darden, what are you most proud of having accomplished? What would you say is your single, biggest accomplishment at NASA?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Well, my first task when I became an engineer was to develop a computer program that would give us insight into how to design an airplane for minimized sonic boom. And I developed that program and spent the next 15 or 20 years actually using that program, designing models, testing them, making changes when we weren’t quite right, and ultimately doing flight test. And hopefully, those same theories might be actually demonstrated in an airplane if NASA can get an X-plane for supersonic flight in the next few years.

IRA FLATOW: And how did the political events of the times– you were there right there in the ’60s. There were tremendous political events going– ’64, ’65, the civil rights movement. Did you feel that shaping your job at all at NASA?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Well, of course, I did live through very turbulent times, and I lived through exciting times. Also, Sputnik was shot up when I was in high school also. And so I think one of the– I had been in an all-black environment pretty much until I came to NASA. My entire education was segregated.

So when I got there and I started thinking that I really wanted to pursue engineering and work as an engineer and I wanted to go to school, one of the toughest decisions to make was I knew that the others in my class would be six or seven white males. And I would be the only female and the only black, and that worried me a long time. And I finally said, I’m going to do it, and I did it. And nobody spoke to me for a while.

But after the first few weeks and after a test or two, a couple of guys came over and said, hey, you want to join our study group? And so it moved on from there. And I was focusing on doing what I was there to do.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And Margot, it must have been sort of the same kind of breakthrough for Katherine Johnson to be trusted with creating the calculations that first put John Glenn into orbit and brought him back in 1962.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Yeah, this it’s an almost unbelievable thing. We have a situation where in Virginia, which is still a segregated state, this was a time when not that long before that, women weren’t allowed to serve on juries. A lot of states didn’t allow women to get credit cards in their own names. And yet, here is Katherine Johnson, a black woman, working with white male engineers and her hand and saying, listen, I’m the one to finish the report that describes the orbital flight that was upcoming.

She did that 1959. And she was the one that when they were counting down to the February, 1962 orbital flight of astronaut John Glenn, and you can imagine the kind of checklists and anxiety around that– this is a very complicated mission that they had. And one of the checklist items was having Katherine Johnson basically take a set of data that went through the computer, basically simulating the upcoming flight, having Katherine Johnson take the raw numbers and run them through all of the equations that have been programmed in the computer by hand to make sure that the computer’s results were the same as her results.

So John Glenn, what he actually said was, listen, get the girl to do it. And at that time, all of the women, regardless of their age or background, were commonly referred to as “the girls–”

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got to interrup you just to remind our stations that this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Yeah, so John Glenn trusted Katherine Johnson’s numbers as one of the preflight checklists. It’s an amazing story.

IRA FLATOW: Did he do this personally, ask from this?

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: He– I’ve checked so many different sources on that, from Katherine Johnson to the engineers and even astronauts who asked John Glenn in retrospect about that moment, and he asked for “the girl.” And everybody, they knew that she was the particular girl working in that group and that the engineers that were very closely associated with that particular endeavor would sort that particular task over to her.

IRA FLATOW: Christine Darden, how did your work life and your home life compere? Was it easier to be black at NASA or in Hampton, Virginia?

CHRISTINE DARDEN: Probably at NASA at the time, because as she told the story about a woman couldn’t get a credit card. I tried to buy a violin one year, and they told me my husband had to come in and pay for it. I says, he’s not paying for it. So we had lots of incidents like that in Hampton.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, there’s a famous incident, Margot, in your book about taking away the sign at the lunchroom there at the table, the segregation sign.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: That’s true. Now, that’s something that happened in the very early days. And there was a woman named Miriam Mann, who worked at Langley until 1967. She was in the very first group. There was a group of 11 women who had gone through a war training class, and five of those were the very first women to go and take a seat in the West Area Computing Office. And those women, they were the first black professionals at all of what would become NASA.

There had been black cafeteria workers and groundskeepers. But they were there with the engineers. They had a separate table. And Miriam Mann refused– every day she took the sign that said “colored computers” on the table. She took it. She put it in her purse, and she took it home, just refusing to acknowledge the segregation.

Until one day, the sign disappeared. And it seems like a small thing, but it really is a great thing for establishing their dignity in that professional work place.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you both for being with us this hour, Christine Darden, former NASA mathematician/engineer. The book is Hidden Figures, and it’s out there. Founder of Human Computer Project at Charlottesville, Virginia.

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