Hidden No More: Revolutionary Black Women at NASA


Katherine Johnson’s name is now well known as one of NASA’s “hidden figures”, African-American women whose pioneering work has been a key part of our success in space. More people than ever know about the contributions of Johnson and her colleagues, including Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, and other “human computers.”

Katherine Johnson sits at her desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device. Longtime NASA mathematician and” Hidden Figure, “Johnson has calculated the trajectories of many major space flights (NASA)

Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918. She was fascinated by numbers as a young and highly intelligent – a freshman in high school at age 10, graduating from high school at age 14. and graduated from college. at 18 years old. She graduated with honors from West Virginia State University in 1937 with degrees in math and French. Her success with numbers continued, and she became one of the first African American students to graduate from the University of West Virginia.

After working as a teacher, she went to work for NACA (the forerunner of NASA), calculating the results of the Langley Research Center wind tunnel. She will then work for NASA. “Katherine excelled as a ‘human computer’, and the early Americans’ flights into space relied on her calculations,” explained Dr. Ellen Stofan, “Even when NASA turned to computers electronics to calculate trajectories, John Glenn has now asked Katherine to personally recheck the calculations on her flight before boarding Friendship 7.

“Katherine, and countless unsung heroes like her, have driven the nation’s space program forward, despite pervasive opposition from all levels of society. Katherine went where her skills were needed, even though she wasn’t invited, ”Stofan concluded.

Join us as we uncover the stories of two other women whose work and accomplishments, like Johnson’s, have been hidden and untold for years, but who have also played a key role in the success of the space program in the United States. United.

Christine darden

Christine Darden is a mathematician featured in the book Hidden Figures. Discover his journey in this My Path video.

Christine Darden was an aeronautical engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. She was one of NASA’s leading researchers on the sonic boom and its relationship to supersonic and hypersonic airplanes.

She began her career at NASA in 1967 when she was hired as a “human computer” at the Langley Research Center. Prior to coming to NASA, Darden had obtained a BSc in Mathematics from Hampton University in 1962 and an MSc from Virginia State College in 1967. (She then obtained a PhD in Engineering from George University Washington in 1983.)

According to NASA, “After wading through daily calculations for eight years, Darden approached her supervisor to ask why men, with the same level of education as her (a master’s degree in applied mathematics), were being hired as engineers. . Impressed with her skills, her supervisor transferred her to the engineering section, where she was one of the few female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley during this time.

Darden’s first assignment was to write a computer program that models a sonic boom. This led to a 25-year career focused on minimizing sonic boom. However, that is not all she has contributed. “During her 40-year career at NASA, she led an advisory team made up of representatives from industrial manufacturers and academic institutions, became Deputy Program Director of the TU-144 Experiments Program, a component of the program. NASA high-speed research; and, in 1999, she was appointed director of the program management office of the Aerospace Performing Center, where she was responsible for research at Langley on air traffic management and other aviation programs managed at other centers. from NASA, ”NASA wrote in an article.

Patricia cowings

Dr Patricia Cowings has studied ‘space sickness’. (NASA)

A research psychologist in the Biomedical Division of the Ames Research Center, Patricia Cowings investigated the psycho-physiological and biological problems encountered by astronauts in space in the early 1980s. The subject of her research, also known as from space sickness, is a real problem for many astronauts.

Cowings joined NASA in 1971, after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook in 1970. (She then obtained a doctorate in psychology from the University of California-Davis in 1973. .)

Cowings’ tests provoked the disease so she could learn to fight the effects. Because astronaut training time is precious, she had to come up with a program that wouldn’t take astronauts more than six hours to learn how to control the disease. Cowings has designed a 12-session, half-hour program combining training and biofeedback. During the training, she taught a subject to mentally evoke a sensation, such as muscle relaxation, to cause desired physiological changes such as increased skin temperature or relaxed muscles. Cowings’ approach to biofeedback involved monitoring up to 26 physiological functions related to motion sickness. These included things like heart rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the hands. Subjects learned to regulate these autonomous functions by observing them as they are displayed on an oscilloscope.


This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of women on display at the Museum in the early 2000s.


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