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African-American Women Behind the Space Race – MMXLII

African-American Women Behind the Space Race

February is Black History Month, and was first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976, only 41 years ago. The purpose of Black History Month is to recognize black achievements and celebrate trailblazer who overcame major obstacles. The United States still lives under a very dark history because of slavery and the slave trade. On paper, America stood for freedom. But that freedom was denied to black America. White America, lived in a privileged world that denied human rights to others who look different.



Welcome to 2017 when a film finally tells the story of 3 African American women in “Hidden Figures” who worked for NASA in the sixties. The women are played by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. The film focuses on the struggle of the real main characters Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan.

Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley

Mary Jackson (1921-2005)

Jackson’s job was to extract the relevant data from experiments and flight tests. She also tried to help other women advance in their career, by advising them on what educational opportunities to pursue. After retiring from NASA in 1985, Jackson decided to become an equal opportunity specialist to help women and minorities. Although described as a behind-the-scenes sort of worker, she helped many people get promoted or become supervisors.


Katherine Johnson (1918)

Johnson began her career working with data from flight tests, but her life quickly changed after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in 1957. She was also pivotal in the Mercury missions, where Johnson did trajectory analysis for Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961, and (at John Glenn’s request) did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962. She later retired from NASA In 1986. At age 97, in 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Dorothy Vaughan in her twenties.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008)

Vaughan joined the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943 after starting her career as a math teacher in Farmville, Virginia. Her job during World War II was a temporary position, but later became a full time position. Vaughan became the first black NACA supervisor in 1949 and was an expert programmer in FORTRAN, a predominant computer language at the time.  She retired from NASA in 1971.




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