The Human Computers Project

Grants | History

Katherine Johnson, 1971; mathematician assigned to the Space Task Group.
Katherine Johnson, 1971; mathematician assigned to the Space Task Group.

By David Bearinger with photos courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center

It’s February 18, 1962.  Project Mercury is in full swing.  The United States and the Soviet Union are locked in a high-stakes “race for space.”  Two successful sub-orbital flights the previous year have narrowed the gap, but the U.S. is still trailing behind.

Nine months earlier, President Kennedy delivered an address to Congress, in which he said the nation should commit itself to landing a man on the Moon “before this decade is out.” Now the attention of the entire country, and indeed the world, is focused on the launch site at Cape Canaveral, and on astronaut John Glenn as he prepares to make mankind’s first orbit of the Earth.

The launch has been scrubbed five times before because of weather and equipment failures; the pressure building on NASA is extreme. Electronic computers were in use by then; but as he made himself ready, Glenn asked for one more safeguard before he reached into the unknown.

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” he said. “If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go….”

Katherine Johnson, 1971; mathematician assigned to the Space Task Group.
Katherine Johnson, 1971; mathematician assigned to the Space Task Group.

The “girl” was Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician, then 43 years old and assigned to the Space Task Group.  She was one of hundreds of “human computers,” nearly all of them women, who performed the complex calculations, using Friden adding machines and slide rules that ensured the success of America’s space program in its earliest days.

In 2014, VFH awarded a grant to the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History to support the first phase of a long-term project that will document and make accessible the stories of these women—black and white—who served as “human computers” at NASA and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The story began in 1935 when NACA’s Langley research lab in Hampton, Virginia hired five female math graduates to support its flight research operations.  The women read the measurements from aircraft flown in wind tunnels and test flights, analyzed the data, and did the painstaking work that helped predict and optimize flight performance.

Their success led to more and more women being hired as the scope of NACA’s research expanded, and by the beginning of World War II female mathematicians were already playing key—although still largely invisible—roles in the development of faster, safer aircraft.

In 1941 President Roosevelt signed an executive order desegregating America’s defense industry, and by 1943, Langley had established a separate computing pool of African American mathematicians recruited from historically black colleges.

These “colored computers,” as they were called, did the same work as their white counterparts but in a separate office, using separate rest rooms and lunch rooms.  Both groups worked at Langley, and they reported up through the same chain-of-command, but an oral history project conducted in the 1990s revealed that, in the early days, some of the “white computers” had no idea that a separate pool of African American workers even existed.

For many years, the VFH has placed a high priority on the untold stories of Virginia.  It’s fair to say that these women played a critical role in the success of the nation’s space program and in the development of aeronautical research generally.  And yet this piece of American—and Virginia—history is almost entirely unknown.

That’s about to change.  Project Director Margot Shetterly who has been researching this history for the past three years is also the author of the forthcoming book, Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race (Spring, 2016; William Morrow/Harper Collins).

The project VFH has supported involves collection of oral histories, new research, and creation of a website and blog linking information on the female mathematicians (biographies and interviews), the history of the U.S. space program, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, and the space-race with accessible, easy-to-read information on aeronautics, early spacecraft and computers, and the tools the “computers” used to perform their tasks.

It’s a blending of humanities and STEM disciplines with the potential to create an exemplary digital history platform and a widely-used resource accessible to students, teachers, researchers, and a broad public audience.

Former "computers," standing, from left to right: Christine Darden, Janet Cook Stephens, Kathryn Smith, and Sharon Stack. Seated, Katherine Johnson.
Former “computers,” standing, from left to right: Christine Darden, Janet Cook Stephens, Kathryn Smith, and Sharon Stack. Seated, Katherine Johnson.

An impressive team of scholars is involved, including Shetterly; Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies who has written on the subjects of race and feminism; and Christine Darden, an engineer and former director of NASA’s Aero Performing Program Management Office.  Darden joined the Center’s computing pool in 1967, was the first African American promoted into the Senior Executive Service at NASA, and is now a leading advocate for STEM education in Virginia.

The NASA-Langley Cultural Resources Office is an active supporter of the project and an important source of primary resource materials.  Other partners include the Hampton History Museum which is curating an exhibit on the history of the Human Computers, scheduled to open this fall.

As one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, John Glenn was a pioneer, an American hero and icon who came to represent the ideal of “the best and the brightest” and the can-do spirit of what Walter Lippman called The American Century.  Partly for that reason, his simple request—“Get the girl to check the numbers…”—speaks volumes.

As a supporter of this effort to tell the stories of Katherine Johnson and the other Human Computers, VFH is fulfilling commitments we made long ago: to honor the contributions of women to Virginia and the nation, to help bring to light the untold stories of Virginia, and to explore the links between science, technology, and the humanities.

The Human Computers project does all three.

Update

Since this piece was written in 2015, Margot Shetterly’s book has been turned into a major motion picture that debuted January 6, 2017.

Watch the Trailer

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All photos courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center