Black Female “Human Computers” Were Crucial to NASA’s Space Exploration Program


*We ALL know that the public educational system in the United States has been woefully deficient in including the contributions of African Americans. I still remember the moment when I, as a 2nd grader, pieced together than the black American revolutionist Chrispus Attucks fought in the same Revolutionary War that included Paul Revere and the rest of the white folks in powdered wigs and stockings. I like to tell myself that things have changed since then, and they HAVE, but when you stumble across a largely untold, unknown story like this, you have to wonder “how much?”.

A group of black, female college-educated mathematicians and chemists worked for NASA beginning in the 1940s, and helped land John Glenn and his colleagues on the moon.

Yes, they did!

97-year-old retired African American NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson was one of them. She was one of dozens of “human computers” who were hired by NASA Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in the 1940s.

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They were called “human computers” because before machines were designed, built, and perfected, these pioneering women crunched the numbers necessary to figure out everything from wind tunnel resistance to rocket trajectories to safe reentry angles..

If you’re like me, just reading those terms almost gives you a headache.

All of Langley’s hundreds of “human computers”, both black and white, were women, during an era when, as Johnson has said, “the computer wore a skirt.”

The same shortage of men that drove women into manufacturing jobs during World War II led Johnson and others to their “human computer” gigs. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed an order mandating the hire of more African American workers. Two years later, Langley started hiring college-educated black women with backgrounds in math and chemistry.  They earned $2000 annually — a far higher salary than most educated women were making at the time.

Despite the financial boon that Johnson and others enjoyed, they faced many of the same discriminatory practices that other African Americans faced in the 1940s. They were forced to work in a separate facility than their white colleagues, had to use separate bathrooms, and had to sit at a “colored only” table in the cafeteria. The lab the women worked in was even on the site of a former plantation! 


However, unlike many of her colleagues, Johnson didn’t work in a separate building for long. Hired in 1953, she first worked in the computer pool, but was soon promoted.  Within five years, she was the only woman of color on the Space Task Force, charged with getting American astronauts into space. When that happened for the first time in 1961, Johnson’s mathematical calculations are credited for creating the capsule’s trajectory.

“The early trajectory was a parabola,” Johnson said in 2008, “and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point. Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”

I am SCARED of Miss Johnson!

When it was time for John Glenn to go up, NASA had started using machines for similar calculations. But Glenn mistrusted the new technology and insisted that Johnson double-check the results!

“You could do much more, much faster on a computer,” Johnson said. “But when they went to computers, they called us over and said ‘Tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.’”

Glenn subsequently became the first American to orbit the Earth, while Johnson would go on to make her mark on future missions, including the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing  and the space shuttle program, remaining active into the 1980s.

If all of this sounds like it would make a great book, someone beat you to it: Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race, is being published this fall — and it’s being made into a major feature film starring Empire’s Taraji P. Henson as Johnson.

A long overdue, well deserved “hats off” to Johnson, and I can’t WAIT for the book and movie!


This blog was written by freelancer Michael P Coleman. Follow him on Twitter.

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