Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Mary Winston Jackson 

Mary Jackson (1921-2005) studied airflow and drag patterns over US aircraft, authoring or co-authoring a dozen technical papers on the subject. She initiated her career as a math teacher in Maryland and made several career changes before starting as a computer in 1951. She began at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory under Dorothy Vaughan. She completed additional schooling to move into an engineering role, becoming the first woman of color to serve as a NASA engineer. After a long stretch as an engineer, Mary took a demotion to work in Human Resources. Her goal in doing so was to encourage other Black women to pursue roles in engineering. In HR, she was able to connect people with jobs they may have otherwise been discouraged from.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson 

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her mathematical efforts on behalf of Project Mercury and the space shuttle program. It was she who plotted the trajectory for Alan Shepard's space flight, the first by any American. She began working at Langley in 1953, and the position she assumed would be temporary became permanent. She investigated and studied the effects of wake turbulence, provided crucial math for dozens of projects, and contributed to a number of iconic American missions. These included the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan 

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) was a computer programmer who served as the first African American supervisor at NACA. She, too, began her career as a math teacher before turning to Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943. As the head of the West Computers, Dorothy advocated for the women on her team for promotions, raises, and opportunities. She herself was called on to handle particularly challenging projects. Dorothy later became a programmer when electronic computing came about.

Dr. Christine Darden

Dr. Christine Darden, born in 1942, was an expert in supersonic flight physics and the first African American woman promoted to the US civil service's Senior Executive Services classification. When she joins Langley as a data analyst, Katherine Johnson becomes a mentor figure for her as she establishes herself in the Black community there. Christine obtains a Ph.D. in engineering and left a long legacy. She was able to pursue these opportunities because women like Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary paved the way for younger generations. It is through their hard work and passion that Christine could make such an important impact.

Margerey Hannah

As the white section united chief, Margerey was “expected” to ostracize and disrespect the Black women of the West Area Computing. Instead, she treated the women as equals and regularly socialized with them. When she left to join a different team, Dorothy eventually became the head of the unit. Margerey went on to publish scientific papers herself.

John Glenn

John was the very first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. It was he who requested that Katherine Johnson confirm the calculations over the electronic computer. He insisted on her confirmation before embarking on the trip.

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