Females working as “human computers” dates back long before space exploration. In the late 1800’s Harvard employed a group of women who collected, studied, and catalogued thousands of images of stars and a woman named Williamina Fleming was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs.
In 1941, with World War II raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt banned discrimination in the employment of workers in government because of race, creed, color, or national origin. NACA (precursor to NASA) began recruiting African-American women after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US into the War.
While they performed the same tasks as their white counterparts, these African-American “computers” were paid less and segregated to the West section of Langley. These women became known as the “West Computers” and were at the heart of the center’s advancements.
Katherine Johnson, the main character in the movie, was a child prodigy, graduating from High School at 14 and from West Virginia State University at age 18. In 1938, as a graduate student, she became one of three students—and the only woman—to desegregate West Virginia’s state college. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA thanks to the Space Act of 1958.
Johnson’s first big gig at NASA was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s historic flight in 1961. The film focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. John Glenn did not completely trust the computer so he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
While Katherine Johnson is portrayed as the main character, the story also follows Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, both early computer hires of NACA. Vaughan became a leader and advocate for the “West Computers” and in 1948 became NACA’s first black supervisor. Jackson graduated with dual degrees in math and physical science, hired at Langley in 1951 and promoted to engineer in 1958 making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer.
Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015. In May 2016, a NASA research facility in Hampton, Virginia was named in her honor.
Neither the movie nor this post can fully tell the story of these women, the other West Computers, and what they did for History, STEM and Women’s Rights.