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Trending Science: Female math wizards helped put the first men on the moon 50 years ago

African American women were behind the single most historic event of the 20th century.


The unthinkable image of Apollo 11’s Eagle spacecraft touching down on the moon’s surface on 20 July 1969 mesmerised over half a billion people glued to their TV sets. The moon landing transformed humanity, and had a profound impact on the psyche: anything was possible. The brains behind the launch The landmark mission succeeded thanks to about 10 years of tests and training, 400 000 engineers and scientists, a budget in the billions, and the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. Lost in the bigger picture were the efforts of three pioneering women who worked on NASA’s Apollo space programme. Katherine G. Johnson, together with Mary W. Jackson and Dorothy J. Vaughan, calculated complex trajectories for Alan Shepard and John Glenn, the first Americans in space. Johnson also computed backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. All three’s orbital calculations were used in earlier missions, too. In fact, starting in the 1940s, NASA employed a large number of female mathematicians with degrees to process data and perform complicated calculations. Many of these early programmers and coders were black. Breaking through the glass ceiling What made the trio’s critical contributions to humankind even more impressive were the cultural barriers of race and gender they had to overcome during the United States’ pre-civil rights era. Despite gender and racial lines, Jackson became NASA’s first African American female engineer, and Vaughan was the first black supervisor at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor. Their exploits were heralded within NASA, but remained largely unknown to the outside world until the film Hidden Figures was released in 2016. It’s based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same name earlier that year. In an article published at the time in the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’, director Theodore Melfi said: “Nasa has never hidden these women and always held them up and celebrated them. It’s always been a progressive place and it was always about the value of your brain.” Janelle Monáe, who played Jackson, noted: “These women were told that their dreams were not valid because of their gender and the colour of their skin. But these were two things they could not change – and would not want to – because [Jackson] was a proud black woman.” The film also sent the message of women breaking through in predominantly male disciplines. “If a girl, of whatever age or ethnicity, is inclined toward science, technology engineering and math, they should be encouraged and that passion should be fostered because if we only had the male perspective, women will continue to be marginalised and objectified,” said Octavia Spencer, who played Vaughan. Since that magical summer of 1969, 12 people have set foot on the moon – all men. At the 100-year anniversary, we should also be talking about the women who walked on the moon.


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