Everyone knows about the Apollo missions. We can all immediately list the bold male astronauts who took those first giant steps for humankind in space:John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. Yet, remarkably, Katherine G.Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s are names not taught in school or even known to most people — even though their daring, smarts and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to advances that allowed for human space flight. At last, the story of a visionary trio of women who crossed gender, race and professional lines on their way to pioneering cosmic travel comes to the screens. But who were these women?
Dorothy Vaughn played by Octavia Spencer
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1910, Dorothy Vaughan was a gifted child who excelled academically and musically. Her family relocated to West Virginia when she was eight. Aged 15, Vaughan won a full scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. Married to Howard Vaughan, the mother of six was a schoolteacher before joining NASA’s Langley Research Center as a computer in the 40s. She was promoted to a management position and became NASA’s first black supervisor. A fierce champion for her staff, Vaughan devoted herself to fighting for promotions and pay raises for both black and white women computers. With the introduction of the first electronic computers to NASA, Vaughan had the foresight to realize that the role of the human computer would vanish. Reinventing herself, she learned how to program the IBM, becoming proficient in Fortran (computer programing language). Vaughan also encouraged the women in her department to become computer programmers, in 25 order to save their jobs. She joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan died in 2008.
Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monáe
Born in Hampton Virginia in 1921, Mary Jackson graduated in math and physical science from Hampton Institute. Married to Levi Jackson Sr., the mother of two initially worked as teacher. A gifted mathematician, Jackson started her NASA career as a computer. Recognized for her excellent engineering skills, Jackson was encouraged by NASA engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki to enter a training program that would enable her to be promoted from mathematician to engineer. Tenacious and courageous, she petitioned to be allowed into a segregated white high school, in
order to take the college courses required for her to work officially as a NASA engineer. Winning her fight and completing her qualifications, Jackson went on to become NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer and is thought to be the first black female engineer in the United States. Deeply concerned about equality for women, later in her career, Jackson took a demotion to become a human resources manager. Among the honors she received was an Apollo Group Achievement Award. For three decades, Jackson was an enthusiastic Girl Scouts leader. She died in 2005.
Katherine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson
One of the brightest minds of her generation, mathematician, physicist and space scientist, Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. Displaying an early aptitude for math, she was brilliant with figures. Encouraged by her parents and teachers, Johnson attended West Virginia State College and graduated with highest honors. She became the first African American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, when the state first integrated its graduate schools in 1930. Originally a teacher, Johnson was hired as a computer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1953. She was assigned to the Flight Research Division and became indispensable, doing calculations for orbital trajectories on the early Mercury flights. Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard, the first American in Space. Her math was instrumental to the success of the historic Friendship 7 Mission, in which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The early electronic IBM computer was essential to Glenn’s flight, but not reliable, so Glenn insisted that “the girl” (he meant Johnson) manually check the numbers before his flight. The successful flight, of course, marked a turning point in the Space Race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The stellar mathematician also worked on the calculations for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite. Johnson has three daughters from her first marriage to James Goble, who died in 1956. Since 1959, she has been married to Colonel James Johnson. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.