Dorothy Vaughan was a skilled mathematician and programmer for NASA during the early-to-mid 20th century.

What is she famous for?

Vaughan and her team’s calculations helped some of the first astronauts to get back to Earth safely after space missions. She was also the first Black woman to be a supervisor at NACA, constantly fighting for equality against the racial prejudices of America at the time.

Before NASA – Dorothy Vaughan’s Early Life

Dorothy Vaughan was born on the 20th of September 1910 in Missouri. Her family moved across America to West Virginia when she was a child.

In West Virginia, she graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925. When she graduated from high school, she was the class valedictorian. The class valedictorian is a position for the person who received the best results in their graduating class. Even from a young age, Vaughan was very intelligent and hard-working!

After graduating from high school, she received a scholarship to attend university. She studied mathematics at Wilberforce University, which at the time was a university for Black students (because of segregation).

When she received her degree, she became a maths teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Virginia.

What was segregation?

In the 20th century, the United States of America ensured that Black and White people were kept separate in society via segregation. They were split up into schools, buses, shops, and jobs. This divide would have been something that Dorothy Vaughan faced from childhood, limiting her opportunities for education and work.

Vaughan’s Career at NASA

The outbreak of the Second World War

When America joined the Second World War, things began to change. In 1941, President Roosevelt put out a special order that made it so that someone’s race didn’t matter if they applied for a job defending the country.

The American air force was seen as essential to winning the war, so the President arranged this so that as many skilled people as possible would be working in these roles – not just as soldiers, but as engineers and mathematicians.

NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics)

Because of the President’s orders, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA for short, began to hire mathematicians they wouldn’t have otherwise; this primarily involved hiring Black female mathematicians like Dorothy Vaughan.

This committee would later change its name to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Role as a ‘Human Computer’

Dorothy and other Black women began to work at Langley Research Area. Her job was calculating difficult maths problems by hand as a ‘human computer.’ Their work would be used in the aerospace industry.

Even though they were accomplished mathematicians, these women were kept separate from their White colleagues, using separate bathrooms and dining areas. Segregation was still in full swing in America. It was only in 1958 that NASA’s segregated facilities would be closed over a decade later.

What is a human-computer?

Before, there were machines to do complex mathematical calculations in the blink of an eye; people had to do it by hand. The people who worked on this kind of thing were very talented and skilled but did not usually get the acclaim they deserved. They worked in teams to complete different calculation parts and often swapped findings to check each other’s work.

Many ‘human computers’ were women from the late 1800s onwards, especially during the First and Second World Wars. Examples of things they would ‘compute’ include working out formulas relating to nuclear fission or trigonometry.

Did human computers become obsolete?

As technology progressed and allowed electronics to do the work of ten or more people in no time, there were fears that many women hired to complete this essential work would be out of a job.

However, in the early days of computer technology, they still needed people to program computers.

That’s what Dorothy Vaughan did! In the 1960s, she saw the writing on the wall and began to teach herself one of the first programming languages: FORTRAN. After that, she led her co-workers so they could be prepared when their jobs changed for good.

It’s not completely accurate to say that the large teams of human computers working in different industries have become obsolete. Instead, many of them became the first programmers!

Dorothy Vaughan’s Accomplishments at NASA

Here’s just a short list of things that Dorothy Vaughan achieved at NACA (and later NASA):

  • In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan became the manager in her place of work. She was the first-ever Black supervisor at NACA and one of the first women.
  • She learned how to program electronic computers and became a highly skilled programmer.
    Vaughan worked at Langley during one of the fascinating periods of American history: the Space Race.
  • She joined the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group within NASA.
  • Along with Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, she worked on the astronaut John Glenn’s launch into orbit in the Friendship 7 mission. He would be the first American to orbit the Earth.

That’s not even counting her contributions to civil rights. Simply by working at NASA in mathematics as a Black woman, she proved to the world that race and gender did not affect how good someone was in any STEM role.

Dorothy Vaughan’s Legacy and Death

Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. While working as a human computer and later as a supervisor at the organization, she raised her six children. One of her children would later go on to work at NASA!

She died on the 10th of November 2008 at the age of 98.

The Vaughan crater on the Moon’s far side was named after her and her contributions to the space race. A year later, in 2020, a satellite was also named “Dorothy” after her.

Hidden Figures (2016)

In 2016, the biographical film Hidden Figures was released and proved popular with the public. This film featured Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson. It was based on a non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly.

The film focused on their work launching the astronaut John Glenn into orbit and then the discrimination they faced in the workplace while doing so.

It helped raise the profile of Dorothy Vaughan’s achievements at NASA and highlight the everyday prejudices Black people faced in America during the 20th century.

Why is it essential to learn about Dorothy Vaughan?

Learning about Dorothy Vaughan and other figures like her is essential to understanding the inequalities faced by marginalized groups worldwide.

Although she lived in America before the Civil Rights Act, some of her experiences can resonate with children who live in other countries.

Vaughan fought for equality for Black people in the United States and women looking to be respected in male-dominated professions. As a result, she’s an iconic figure in STEM that young girls looking to break into science or engineering can take inspiration from.

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