Women in NASA - By Will Leaning

That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind’, is one of the most well-known quotes today, symbolising human endeavour and achievement, yet we don’t often tend to look further than those whom were in the limelight that day: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; Michael Collins. But behind the scenes, a team of over 400,000 workers consisting of engineers, scientists, and programmers, to nurses, caterers, and custodial staff, worked tirelessly to meticulously plan and prepare for launch day and beyond. Without them, getting humanity onto the face of the moon would not have been possible.

One such worker, Katherine Johnson, recently passed away at the age of 101, marking a sad day for the scientific community. Johnson was a pioneer for women and African-Americans in the fields of mathematics and engineering. Hired by NASA’s predecessor, NACA, in 1953, Johnson’s job title was ‘computer’, which involved manually performing complex calculations related to flight paths, orbital trajectories, and launch windows. Discrimination was rife within the institution, and Johnson was assigned to a segregated division known as the ‘coloured computing pool’. Although disbanded in 1958 during the formation of NASA, Johnson recalled how discrimination was still prevalent, stating, ‘no woman in my division had had her name on a report’, and only by colleagues standing up to management did Johnson finally get to take credit for the reports she had worked on.

During her time at NASA, Johnson quickly became renowned for her affinity for complex mathematics, and was often called upon to double check the work of others. Her achievements are numerous and impressive, and include safely getting the first Americans into space and orbit (Alan Shepherd and John Glenn respectively), and ensuring that backup plans were in place in case missions had to be aborted, which proved vital in the safe return of the Apollo 13 mission. When interviewed in 2010, Johnson said, ‘Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back’. Johnson’s compassion and priorities are evident, as her main concern was the safety of her colleagues.

Johnson was not alone, however. Alongside her was a brilliant team of computers, who, like her, were segregated from the rest of the department because of the colour of their skin. Melba Mouton was head of the NASA computers, and worked as a mathematician for the Echo Satellite projects (experimental passive satellites that reflected electromagnetic waves towards a receiver), and made contributions at seminars on the use of the programming language ‘APL’. Mary Jackson, who joined NACA two years before Johnson, became the first African-American female engineer at NASA in 1958 after taking on advanced engineering classes at night. She had to petition the city of Hampton to allow her to attend the sessions as they were held at an all-white school. Her interests centred upon the forces experienced by vehicles in flight, and she analysed wind tunnel and real flight data to better understand how air flow could be improved on planes. During her time at NASA, Jackson achieved the most senior engineer rank possible, and ended up voluntarily taking a demotion in order to become manager of the Federal Women’s and Affirmative Action Programs, influencing the hiring process in order to bring equality to the fore.

Annie Easley was a computer and software engineer who moved on to develop software for NASA, ultimately working on the code that ensured the proper functioning of the Centaur high-energy upper rocket. Easley also worked on identifying how energy systems could be made more efficient, highlighting the possible use of renewable energy sources (such as solar). I cannot mention software engineering without also mentioning the woman who is partly credited with defining the term, Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton was key in the development of the guidance software used on the Apollo missions, and is most recognizable from the picture of her stood next to the stack of code she helped write. Before NASA, Hamilton worked on the SAGE project (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and was assigned, like all newcomers, a program no one could figure out or get to run. This was because it was incredibly complicated code, and all of the annotations were in Latin or Greek. Hamilton proved her proficiency as a software engineer however when she managed to get it to work. It was her efforts on this project that eventually led her to become lead developer for the Apollo flight software.

Between them, this small subset of mathematicians and software engineers has been presented with a myriad of awards, including Presidential Medals of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medals. In the early 1950’s, only 5.2% of women in America attained a college level degree. As of 2018, this figure has risen to 35.3%, which exceeds the current percentage of men (34.6%), and has done since 2014. Katherine Johnson and her colleagues’ work helped to break down the perceived domestic role of a typical 1950’s housewife, and proved that women have an undeniably important role in science.


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