The Black Female Mathematicians Who Sent Astronauts to Space

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2015-11-26 03:19Z by Steven

The Black Female Mathematicians Who Sent Astronauts to Space

Mental Floss

A. K. Whitney

Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1971. (Source NASA)

Today, November 24, President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 17 men and women. Among them is 97-year-old retired African-American NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, selected for her contributions to the space program, starting with the Mercury missions in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, through the Apollo moon missions in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, and ending with the space shuttle missions in the mid ’80s. Among other things, she calculated the trajectories of America’s first manned mission into orbit and the first Moon landing.

Awarding Johnson this well-deserved honor doesn’t just shine a spotlight on a single black female STEM pioneer. It also illuminates an obscure but important piece of history. Johnson was just one of dozens of mathematically talented black women recruited to work as “human computers” at the Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

They were so named because before machines came along, they crunched the numbers necessary for figuring out everything from wind tunnel resistance to rocket trajectories to safe reentry angles.

In fact, all of Langley’s hundreds of “human computers,” whether black or white, were women. It was an era when, as Johnson put it, “the computer wore a skirt.”…

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