HIDDEN FIGURES OF AEROSPACE – the African-American Women Pioneers of STEM

January 16, 2017 | Author: Esther Massimini

How Hidden Women of Color Helped Make Aerospace History

Engineering Week and Black History Month, both coming up in February, rarely focus on the achievements of women of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. However, a new movie featuring the events around the first flight of the late astronaut U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio ensures that at least three of these women are no longer “hidden” from history.

John Glenn

By now, many have seen or heard about the movie “Hidden Figures.” It tells the true story of three African-American women who were among the 400 women performing mathematical calculations for the U.S. military and the space program beginning in the 1940s.

Originally, white women were hired due to the lack of men during World War II, but not enough women were qualified to meet the need.

A change in federal policy in 1941 opened the door to African-American women. They worked on the mathematics of space flight, such as that of the Mercury-Redstone3 (MR-3) shown here from May 5, 1961. (Honeywell was the subcontractor of the Mercury’s stabilization system.) Their most vital work involved the calculations of trajectories.

Mercury RS3

Who are the Hidden Figures?

“Hidden Figures” is the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three super-
smart African-American women at NASA. Wielding slide rules and using pencils in the era before computerization, they (and their colleagues) – simply called “computers” – were the brains behind one of the biggest feats of U.S. aerospace: the three orbits of John Glenn around the Earth.

Hidden Figures

Their story, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is even more amazing because it took place in the segregated South under Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. The African-American women are referred to as “hidden” because often not even the white women computers, a mile away, knew of their existence.

Their work was so vital to the space effort that John Glenn would not step into the Mercury capsule for his pioneering flight until the trajectories were calculated and checked by Katherine Johnson herself!

Their work also opened the door to more STEM careers for women. During the 1940s through 1960s, teaching and nursing were the only options for STEM-minded women. Now, engineering and professional mathematics were possibilities. For women of color, a generation of these opportunities culminated in a significant milestone in 1992 when astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. 

How did women of color become “human computers?”

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the “Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries.” This prohibited racial discrimination in hiring and resulted in the recruitment of minorities for the federal workforce.

For example, NASA Langley began advertising in the Norfolk, Va., “Journal And Guide” for machine shop workers, laborers, janitors – and African-American women with math degrees. Dozens of women, many African-American, were hired during these years—the late 1940s into the 1960s.

The photo shown below is from the May 8, 1943, “Norfolk Journal and Guide.” 

Women Engineers

The women hired were almost all top-rated graduates of historically black colleges. However, they were not treated with the respect due professional mathematicians. Their building was on an old slave-owning plantation, Chesterfield, that had no rest rooms (depicted in the movie.) The nearest was in the white women’s building, a mile away! The cafeterias were also segregated. A sign with the word “Colored” was placed on the back table of the cafeteria, clearly indicating that the African-American women were to sit apart from the other workers.

One of the first women hires, Miriam Daniel Mann, highlighted above, took action. From Smithsonian Magazine: “One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront as her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again."

Eventually Mann won this battle, and the sign permanently disappeared. She worked for NASA from 1943 to 1966, and died in 1967. Her granddaughter, professor Duchess Harris, J.D., Ph.D. and Chair of the American Studies Department at Macalester College, is preserving her legacy. Located in St. Paul, Minn., the college is a mere half-hour from Honeywell Aerospace’s Plymouth, Minn., facility. Dr. Harris has written a book about the research on this story in a format for the 6th through 12th grade market: the book “Hidden Human Computers,” cowritten with Sue Bradford Edwards.

Her book is an excellent way to highlight the accomplishments of these “hidden” women of color for its intended middle school and high school audiences.

Although most of the “hidden” human computers have died, Katherine Johnson is still with us at age 98. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Katherine Johnson

Learn more about these pioneers of aerospace and STEM. 





Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini is a Principal Engineer in the Flight Management Systems Center of Excellence with Honeywell Aerospace. She has been with Honeywell for over 29 years and also has worked in the Software Center of Excellence and Computer-Aided Engineering. Before joining Honeywell, she was a Senior Engineer at Motorola and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Esther has a master’s degree in Operations Research from the George Washington University (GWU) School of Engineering and Applied Science, and also holds a certificate in Program Management from GWU’s School of Business. Her undergraduate degree is from Oberlin College, where she majored in Mathematics and History. She is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She is also Green Belt and Design for Six Sigma certified.

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