Brilliance Revealed: In-Depth Profiles of the Women of Hidden Figures

Brilliance Revealed: In-Depth Profiles of the Women of Hidden Figures


Hidden Figures is a motion picture telling the story of three African-American female mathematicians involved in the launch of astronaut John Glenn in 1962. The movie is based on a recently released non-fiction book of the same name written by Margot Shetterly. Released in select theaters on December 25, 2016, it will be widely distributed in early January. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) were active and life-long members of AME churches in Virginia. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) is still alive and continues to advocate for the inclusion of African-Americans in science and technology-related careers.


Dorothy Vaughan

Date of Birth: September 20, 1910

Hometown: Kansas City, MO

Education: B.A., Mathematics, Wilberforce University, 1929

Hired by NACA: December 1943

Retired from NASA: 1971

Date of Death: November 10, 2008

In an era when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is led by an African American man (Administrator Charles Bolden) and a woman (Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), and when recent NASA Center directors come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s easy to overlook the people who paved the way for the Agency’s current robust and diverse workforce and leadership. Those who speak of NASA’s pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan. From 1949 to 1958, she was the head of the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. She was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager.

Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Two years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law, prohibiting racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and 24 hour shifts prevailed—as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.

The group’s original section heads (first Margery Hannah, then Blanche Sponsler) were white. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare Laboratory-wide visibility and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project; and for challenging assignments, they often requested that she personally handle the work.

Dorothy Vaughan helmed West Computing for nearly a decade. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to the NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer and she also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni, including Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith, and Kathryn Peddrew and the achievements of second-generation mathematicians and engineers such as Dr. Christine Darden.

Dorothy Vaughn held membership at Beulah AME Church (Farmville) and later St. Paul AME Church (Newport News). She was an active member of the Women’s Missionary Society and several local church ministries in both congregations. Her alma mater, Wilberforce University, is an AME-affiliated institution.


Mary Winston Jackson

Date of Birth: April 9, 1921

Hometown: Hampton, VA

Education: B.S., Mathematics and Physical Science, Hampton Institute, 1942

Hired by NACA: April 1951

Retired from NASA: 1985

Date of Death: February 11, 2005

Mary Jackson at Work NASA LangleyFor Mary Winston Jackson, a love of science and a commitment to improving the lives of the people around her were one and the same. In the 1970s, she helped the youngsters in the science club at Hampton’s King Street Community Center build their own wind tunnel and use it to conduct experiments. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science,” she said in an article for the local newspaper. “Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”

Mary’s own path to an engineering career at the NASA Langley Research Center was far from direct. A native of Hampton, Virginia, she graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences and accepted a job as a math teacher at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland. Hampton had become one of the nerve centers of the World War II home front effort; and after a year of teaching, Mary returned home, finding a position as the receptionist at the King Street USO Club, which served the city’s black population. It would take three more career changes—a post as a bookkeeper in Hampton Institute’s Health Department, a stint at home following the birth of her son, Levi, and a job as an Army secretary at Fort Monroe—before Mary landed at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951, reporting to the group’s supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.

After two years in the computing pool, Mary Jackson received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, however, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Never one to flinch in the face of a challenge, Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. That same year, she co-authored her first report, “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.”

Mary Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. As the years progressed, the promotions slowed, and she became frustrated at her inability to break into management-level grades. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the Center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists.

Mary retired from Langley in 1985. Among her many honors were an Apollo Group Achievement Award and being named Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. She served as the chair of one of the Center’s annual United Way campaigns, was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than three decades, and a member of the National Technical Association (the oldest African American technical organization in the United States). She and her husband Levi had an open-door policy for young Langley recruits trying to gain their footing in a new town and a new career. A 1976 Langley Researcher profile might have done the best job capturing Mary Jackson’s spirit and character, calling her a “gentlelady, wife and mother, humanitarian and scientist.” For Mary Jackson, science and service went hand in hand.

Mary Jackson was a member of Bethel AME Church, Hampton, Virginia.


Katherine Johnson

Date of Birth: August 26, 1918

Hometown: White Sulphur Springs, WV

Education: B.S., Mathematics and French, West Virginia State College, 1937

Hired by NACA: June 1953

Retired from NASA: 1986

Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments but it’s just one of several breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Johnson’s intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the College itself, where she made quick work of the School’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in Mathematics. Katherine graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

When West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939, West Virginia State’s president Dr. John W. Davis selected Katherine and two male students as the first black students to be offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. Katherine left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first session, however, she decided to leave school to start a family with her husband. She returned to teaching when her three daughters got older but it wasn’t until 1952 that a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Katherine and her husband, James Goble, decided to move the family to Newport News to pursue the opportunity and Katherine began work at Langley in the summer of 1953. Just two weeks into Katherine’s tenure in the office, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division and Katherine’s temporary position soon became permanent. She spent the next four years analyzing data from flight test and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. As she was wrapping up this work, her husband died of cancer in December 1956.

The 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik changed history—and Katherine Johnson’s life. In 1957, Katherine provided some of the math for the 1958 document, “Notes on Space Technology,” a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel; and Katherine, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, “came along with the program” as the NACA became the NASA later that year. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position,” a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work for which she would become most known. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says. In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

The information in this article is compiled from profiles on the NASA website by Margot Lee Shetterly, obituaries available on, and Ms. Ametta Reaves (3rd Episcopal District).

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  1. When will “the man” learn that you cannot hide amazing events in black history. God will see that the light will shine on His people.

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