By National Women’s History Museum
History of NASA
The beginnings of NASA can be traced back to 1915 with the creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The NACA started as an advisory committee to the president. In 1920, the NACA expanded with its first research and testing facility, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia. The NACA continued to grow and boomed during World War II, testing new aircraft, including supersonic flight. After the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the US feared they would fall behind in technology. The following year, the NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, otherwise known as NASA.
Women in NACA/NASA
Women have been an integral part of NACA/NASA operations since 1922. They have played important roles such as mathematician, computer, astronaut, engineer, and supervisors. They have made lasting impacts and helped land a man on the moon. As of 2012, women made up one third of all employees including 30% of supervisors and 20% of engineers. As of 2017, 37% of new hires are female and 50% of the newest class of astronauts were women. While these numbers may sound small, this is a significant increase in female employees at NASA compared to the last few decades.
In 1935, the first group of female human computers were hired. Before electronic computers, all mathematical equations and computations would be done by hand by people, often known as human computers. With the advent of World War II, many male employees at NACA left to fight overseas. More and more women were needed to fill their roles, and soon African American women were hired to help with the shortfall.
These African American women were sent to a segregated computing section known as the West Area Computing Unit, which was the center of the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. In April 1942, a memo was passed around stating that, “The engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could.” The women computers were becoming increasingly more valuable and doing incredible work along the way. Here are 5 notable women who worked in various roles at the NACA/NASA.
The first woman hired by the NACA was Pearl Young in 1922. She was originally hired to the Instrument Research Division which “designed, constructed, calibrated, and repaired virtually all instrumentation carried on aircraft.” She quickly became an integral part of the organization and revolutionized the way technical manuals and papers were written and dispersed. By the time Young retired from NASA in 1961, she had served as the Chief Technical Editor for close to 20 years. In that role, “she insisted that all reports be checked and rechecked for consistency, logical analysis, and absolute accuracy.”
Kitty O'Brien Joyner by NASANational Women’s History Museum
Kitty O’Brien Joyner joined the NACA in 1939 as an electrical engineer after she graduated from the University of Virginia (UVA). She was the first woman to graduate from the engineering program at UVA and the first female engineer at the NACA. Joyner spent her career working in and managing wind tunnels and supersonic flight research.
Vera Huckel (1966) by NASANational Women’s History Museum
Vera Huckel started work at the NACA in 1939.At the time, very few women worked as computers. By 1945 she was a section head in charge of up to 17 women. Through the years she also worked as mathematician, aerospace engineer, and supervisory mathematician.
Huckel’s main area of work was in the Dynamic Loads Division. There, she was one of the only female computers. She worked with the mathematics and testing of sonic booms in supersonic flight. Often, she would travel to the deserts in the western United States and work out the mathematics of the test flights. If she was not able to travel, the numbers and test results would be sent to her in Virginia, where she was the only one trusted to do the math. Additionally, Huckel wrote the first program for the first electronic computer at NASA. Watch the following video to learn more about sonic booms and supersonic flight.
Dorothy Vaughan by NASANational Women’s History Museum
Dorothy Vaughan started work at the NACA in 1943. She previously worked as a math teacher but heard that the NACA was recruiting and jumped at the chance. In 1949 she became the first African American manager at the NACA as section head of the West Area Computing Unit.
IBM Electronic Data Processing Machine (1957) by NASANational Women’s History Museum
When NASA was created in 1958, Vaughan joined the Integrated Analysis and Computation Division and became an expert at the computing language FORTRAN. She even taught male engineers how to use the computers.
Kathryn Peddrew joined the NACA in 1943. She was originally hired as a chemist but when the NACA found out she was African American they sent her to join the West Area Computing Unit. Peddrew spent over 40 years working for the NACA/NASA, mainly working in balance in the Instrument Research Division.
Mary Jackson by NASANational Women’s History Museum
Mary Jackson joined the NACA and the West Area Computing Unit in 1951. By 1953, she joined a group working on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. While there, Jackson was encouraged to enter a training program run by UVA in order to become an engineer. She had to gain permission from the City of Hampton, Virginia to take the class because classes were segregated at the time.
In 1958, Jackson became NASA’s first African American female engineer. She spent her career working on supersonic research finally retiring in 1985 after 34 years with the administration. To learn more about wind tunnels like the one Jackson worked in, watch the following video.
Katherine Johnson joined the NACA in 1953. She worked for the West Area Computing group for a short while before joining the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. There she analyzed data from flight tests. In 1960, she became the first woman in the division to receive author credit on a paper titled “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position.”
Her work was directly related to the space program as she analyzed flight trajectory and landing for multiple flights including Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 and John Glenn’s Friendship 7. In the early days of electronic computing, she would double check the equations done by the electronic computer. Many astronauts, including John Glenn, relied on her for correct calculations. As Johnson said, “’You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you where to take off.’ That was by forte.” Johnson was crucial in calculating the mathematics for the lunar landing and in the rendezvous of the command module and the lunar module. Watch the following clips to see some of the math Johnson worked on.
Johnson retired in 1986 after over 30 years with the organization. She has received many awards and honors throughout her career and after. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, had a building named after her at the Langley Research Center (Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility) in 2016, and now has a movie and a book about her accomplishments.
These women, and many more, changed the way NASA was run and the way women in mathematics were viewed. At one time, women weren’t considered to have the aptitude to be engineers at NASA but these women proved the men wrong and went on to great things. They taught men how to use electronic computers and put a man on the moon. They proved that women engineers and mathematicians are not to be underestimated and continue to inspire the next generation of girls and boys.
National Women's History Museum
Program Manager — Kenna Howat