To celebrate Black History Month, we’re spotlighting the accomplishments of Black people in the world of technology. From engineers, mathematicians, inventors, and entrepreneurs, we’ll be looking at tech leaders and pioneers of many different backgrounds. This week we’re talking about some of the black women of NASA. Keep an eye out for next week’s post to learn more about the lasting impact of Black people throughout history.
Doctor, engineer, NASA astronaut—these are the many titles earned by Mae Jemison. In 1992, She became the first Black woman in space and served during the STS-47 mission aboard the Endeavour. The spacecraft orbited the Earth for almost eight days from September 12-2o.
She has also written several books and appeared in numerous television shows, including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jemison, originally from Decatur, Alabama, has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.
In 1962, the United States made the big decision to send people to the Moon.
To achieve this feat, the space agency NASA developed specialized teams to help put astronauts into orbit. Katherine Johnson was one of the human computers who applied for a position with NASA, then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, multiple times until she was hired.
She worked as a NASA research mathematician at the Langley Research Center in 1966. She focused on how to use geometry for space travel and figured out the paths for spacecrafts to use to go into orbit to the Moon and back. Johnson was part of NASA for more than 30 years before retiring in 1986. She died at 101 years old in 2020.
Mary Jackson was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She started as a computer engineer in the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951 and eventually became the first black female engineer at NASA. After 34 years with the agency, she retired in 1984 with the most senior engineering title available.
Realizing she could not earn any more promotions, she accepted a demotion to become a manager of both the Federal Women’s Program, the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and the Affirmative Action Program. In this role, she was able to influence the hiring and promotion of women in NASA’s science, engineering, and mathematics careers.
In 1949, Dorothy Jean Johnson Vaughan became an acting supervisor of West Area Computers. She was a mathematician and human computer who worked for NASA. She was the first black woman to receive a promotion and supervise a group of staff.
She worked for NASA for 28 years. Vaughn specialized in calculations for flight paths, computer programming, and the Scout Project. Scout stands for Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system. Scouts are known as, “the nation’s most successful and reliable launch vehicles.”
Vaughan played a vital role in assisting NASA to upgrade its technology. She assisted in introducing her staff to computing by teaching herself Fortran, a programming language. In the following years, she lead the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division at Langley. She was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 2019.