Among many of the industries within the United States that have relied on an old-white-boys’ club of operating, one that has had an army of women fighting to gain access is the country’s space program. Whether cracking scientific formulas integral to advancing NASA missions or launching into space as astronauts, the following extraordinary Black women have made essential contributions crucial to space exploration.
The story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan depicted in the book and movie “Hidden Figures” provided long-overdue recognition to the contributions of African American women who helped build the country’s space program and ensure safe space travel. These women were asked to serve the United States by giving all of their energy to a country that still failed to recognize them as citizens with the same considerations as their white, male counterparts. Still, these women not only persisted, they excelled beyond any of the accomplishments of any scientists who preceded them.
In 1952, Johnson joined the West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics—also known as NACA, the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—Langley laboratory in Hampton, Va, according to a biography written for NASA, by “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly. Comprising professionals known as human computers, the group performed complex calculations by hand. The group comprised a team of Black professionals, who were segregated, yet Johnson moved through the human-computer ranks quickly, eventually being assigned by Dorothy Vaughan to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. As a mathematics savant, Johnson was key in mapping the trajectory analysis for Freedom 7, the Alan Shepard mission that took place in 1961, which was the first U.S. spaceflight. The first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as a research-report author, Johnson worked with Ted Skopinski, an engineer, on “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position.” Johnson famously calculated the trajectory of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 orbital-flight mission, which she correctly gauged for a successful operation. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. At the age of 101 years old, Johnson passed away on Feb. 24, 2020.
With a double major in math and physical sciences from Hampton Institute, Mary Jackson was a teacher, prior to a few different career changes that led her to the NACA West Area Computing section. In a biography written for NASA, Shetterly explained that, from the human-computer department, Jackson joined engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki on his work on a Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, which set the mathematician on a new course toward becoming an engineer. To pursue this new course of study, Jackson needed to participate in graduate classes in mathematics and physics. These night-school continuing-education courses for professionals were only offered at Hampton High School, which was segregated. Jackson received the city’s permission to take the courses. After completing her studies, Jackson became NASA’s first Black female engineer and co-authored her first report titled, “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.” Shetterly noted in the biography that the barriers Jackson faced in advancing as an engineer at NASA, who was both Black and a woman, led her uplift emerging female professionals in the space. Jackson passed away on Feb. 11, 2005.
In 1943, during World War II, Dorothy Vaughan began her work at the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. As a mathematician within the West Area Computing lab, Vaughan was promoted as the group’s manager in 1949, a role that made her the first Black supervisor, according to a biography that was written by Shetterly for NASA. During her time as a manager, Vaughan contributed to a handbook on the algebraic methods for calculating machines and also became a voice of women’s advocacy. Upon the transition of NACA to NASA in 1958, departments became integrated and Vaughn began working in the Analysis and Computation Division, whose focus was on the innovations within electronic computing, eventually leading to her expertise as a Formula Translating System programmer and contributor to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program. Vaughan passed away on Nov. 10, 2008, at the age of 98.
While Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan were paving the way to making history in Virginia, Annie Easley joined NACA’s Cleveland, Ohio, Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory as a human-computer—one of only four African American employees in the lab. In a biography written by Anne K. Mills for NASA, Easley is described as contributing to simulations for the Plum Brook Reactor Facility. Evolving with the technology of computing machines being adopted, Easley transitioned into the role of computer programmer through the use of FORTRAN and Simple Object Access Protocol, in addition to developing code for the research of energy-conversion systems and the analyzation of alternative-power technologies. While Easley eventually returned to school, choosing Cleveland State University to pursue a degree in mathematics, she later chose a path to become an equal employment opportunity counselor in order to guide supervisors through overcoming barriers of gender, race, and age discrimination. Easley passed away on June 25, 2011.
Graduating from Northwestern University’s biology program and the medical program at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, Dr. Irene Duhart Long also attained her Master of Science, Aerospace Medicine, degree from Wright State University—the second civilian to enter the program. Following her time as a NASA physician, a role that she began in 1982, Long became the chief medical and environmental health office in the biomedical office. In 1994, Long received appointment as director of the John F. Kennedy Space Center’s Biomedical Operations and Research Office, which managed aerospace and occupational medicine, life-sciences research, and environmental-health programs. This was a post that Long held until 2000. Through Long’s work, the mission of this office was necessary to ensure quality of medical, environmental health, and environmental-ecological monitoring support of launches and landings. In 2000, Long was appointed as chief medical officer and associate director of Spaceport Services, a role that allowed her to monitor astronauts through providing medical care, in addition to ensuring the wellbeing of the Kennedy Space Center’s workers, civil servants and contractors. Through this appointment, Long became the first woman and member of an underrepresented group to hold this post. Dr. Long passed away on Aug. 4, 2020.
Born Oct. 17, 1956, Dr. Mae Jemison was educated in languages including Russian, Swahili, and Japanese, with interests spanning beyond science to also include graphic and performative arts, photography, and travel. According to a biography written by National Women’s History Museum Fellow Kerri Lee Alexander, as a child, Jemison would watch broadcasts from the Apollo Theater in New York City but would become frustrated that the program never featured any female astronauts. Jemison was inspired by seeing African American actor Nichelle Nichols portray Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek.” After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African American studies from Stanford University, Jemison completed her doctoral studies in medicine at Cornell University. Following her internship at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, Jemison served in the Peace Corps as the area medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia from 1983-1985. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1985, Jemison applied to become an astronaut and was selected in 1987. Becoming the first African American woman to visit space during a mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in September 1992. In 1993, Jemison appeared on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Departing NASA in 1993, Jemison currently leads the 100 Year Starship project, which is dedicated to developing technology to achieve interstellar travel, and sits on the boards of directors for a number of organizations.
Astronaut Dr. Jeanette J. Epps was born Nov. 3, 1970, excelling in the sciences as a child, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from LeMoyne College, in addition to Master of Science and Doctorate of Philosophy degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. During graduate school, Epps served as a NASA fellow, conducting research covering composite swept‐tip beams, comparative analysis of analytical models and experimental data for shape memory alloys and the application of shape memory alloy actuators for tracking helicopter rotor blades, according to NASA. Following a career path that led her to work with the Ford Motor Company in its scientific research laboratory, Epps joined the Central Intelligence Agency as a technical intelligence officer. In 2009, Epps was chosen as a member of the 20th incoming class of NASA astronauts. Epps was slated to visit the International Space Station in 2018. According to media reports, Epps was replaced—by a white female astronaut—under unexplained circumstances. In 2020, NASA announced that Epps would be a member of the first operational crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which will make her the first Black woman to live on the ISS. The mission is tentatively scheduled for late 2021.