Speakers you Need Salutes Training and NASA’s Stellar Figures
On the brink of World War II and with America squaring off with foreign enemies, the US military identified a clear and present need for innovation within its aerospace program. Qualified men were in scarce supply in pre-digital-age 1935, so female mathematicians were added by the score to the roles of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Banks of “human computers,” seated shoulder-to-shoulder, freed engineers of hand calculations and sped exponential growth that readied America for engagement in what would be WWII. One group of women, African-American mathematicians housed in the segregated West Area Computing division at Langley, went largely unnoticed and unlauded until Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book and now movie, Hidden Figures, brought their story into full view. Their inspiring achievement, in the face of blatant and widespread racism, helped blaze a trail for NASA and for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.
The West Computers as they were known, worked through hundreds of thousands of equations that enhanced design and performance of aircraft. Urgency and 24-hour shifts prevailed, as did separate dining and bath rooms. The Hidden Figures movie features the contributions – and plight – of three West Computers in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson. Vaughan was hired at Langley as a math teacher, before she agreed to undertake specialized training to learn the computer coding language FORTRAN. Vaughan eventually became a leading FORTRAN expert and supervised the West Computers for ten years. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alums Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. In one movie scene, John Glenn asks for “the girl” to check the calculations generated by the electronic computers that were critical to the mission. Johnson took a day and a half to manually compute the output for eleven different variables, managing them to eight significant digits. Vaughan’s calculations matched the electronic computers exactly, giving John Glenn, and everyone else, the confidence that the critical computer software was reliable.
NASA dissolved the remaining human computers in the 1970s as technological advances made their roles obsolete, but not before launching the careers of several of the West Computers. Jackson, for example, took on additional coursework and training to better equip her self for advancement. The educational investment paid off. In 1958 she became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Speakers you Need (SyN) applauds NASA’s stellar figures, the once hidden black female mathematicians who utilized training to change the world. SyN stands ready to help you change yours. SyN is a professional training company headquartered in Kansas City with over 100 subject matter experts positioned throughout North America. For more information about SyN’s professional development and training programs, contact Rocky White at 913.815.1494 or check out: http://speakersyouneed.com/