American computer programmer and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan made a substantial impact on the early U.S. space programme. Additionally, she was the first Black American supervisor at NASA, a position she would occupy until and after its merger with NASA.
On September 10, 1910, Dorothy Johnson (her maiden name) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Later, in 1917, her family would relocate to West Virginia.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1929. She got married and started teaching math in Virginia after receiving her degree.
The start of the Second World War would forever alter her life. She quit her position as a teacher in December 1943 and started working at NACA’s West Area Computing Unit.
She would work with NACA for many years even though it was just intended to be a temporary war employment. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan received a promotion to become the head of the West Computers, making her the first black woman in NACA history to hold that position.
Before NACA and NASA combined in 1958, she remained with NACA for nearly another ten years. Numerous members of her former team have also joined her at NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.
The American space programme had already started incorporating electronic computers at this stage in its history. Vaughan and her group decided to learn how to programme them as a result.
Dorothy would soon master FORTRAN and help her coworkers get the same proficiency. She would continue working for NASA for a few more years before retiring in 1971.
On November 10, 2008, Dorothy Vaughan would pass away in Hampton, Virginia. Age-wise, she was 98.
Dorothy Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Leonard and Annie Johnson. The Johnson family immediately moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where they resided throughout Dorothy’s childhood. She rapidly proved to be a great student, graduating early from high school at the age of 15 as her graduating class’ valedictorian.
At Wilberforce University, a historically Black college in Ohio, Vaughan studied mathematics. Her tuition was sponsored by a full-ride scholarship from the West Virginia Conference of the A.M.E. Sunday School Convention.
She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1929, only 19 years old, cum laude. Three years later, she married Howard Vaughan, and the pair travelled to Virginia, where they originally lived with Howard’s rich and well-respected family.
From Teacher to Computer
Although Vaughan was encouraged by her professors at Wilberforce to go to graduate school at Howard University, she declined, instead taking a job at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, so that she could assist support her family during the Great Depression.
During this time, she and her husband Howard had six children: two daughters and four sons. She became a respected leader in her community as a result of her position and education.
During the time of racial segregation in schools, Dorothy Vaughan worked as a high school teacher for 14 years. In 1943, during World War II, she obtained a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) as a computer.
NACA and the rest of the federal agencies had technically desegregated in 1941 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, Vaughan was given a job in the West Area Computing division. Despite women of colour being recruited extensively, they were nevertheless divided into groups separate from their white counterparts.
The computer group consisted of competent female mathematicians who dealt with sophisticated mathematical calculations, practically all done by hand. During the war, their work was tied to the war effort, since the government firmly thought that the war would be won on the strength of air forces.
The scope of operations at NACA expanded dramatically after WWII ended and the space programme began in earnest.
For the most part, their task comprised reading data, processing it, and graphing it for use by the scientists and engineers. Although the women—both white and Black—often earned degrees similar to (or even more advanced than) the men who worked at NASA, they were only hired for inferior jobs and compensation. No women were permitted to work as engineers.
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Supervisor and Innovator
Dorothy Vaughan was given the responsibility of managing the West Area Computers in 1949, though not in a formal supervisory capacity. Instead, she was granted the position of acting group leader (after their previous supervisor, a white woman, died).
This meant that the employment didn’t come with the title and raise that were anticipated. Before she was finally granted the position of supervisor in an official capacity and the advantages that came with it, it took her several years of fighting for herself.
Vaughan worked hard to promote additional opportunities for women in addition to advocating for herself. She wanted to support all the women in the company, including white women, not just her West Computing coworkers.
She eventually gained the respect of the engineers at NASA, who mainly depended on her recommendations to pair projects with the computers whose talents best matched those of the programmes.
Segregated facilities were ultimately and entirely eliminated when NACA changed its name to NASA in 1958. Vaughan was employed by the division of Numerical Techniques when, in 1961, she decided to concentrate on the emerging field of electronic computing.
She foresaw the advent of electronic computers sooner than most people and went out to ensure that she and the other ladies in her organisation were ready. With her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program, a specific kind of rocket made to launch tiny satellites into orbit around the Earth, Vaughan also made a direct contribution to space programme programmes while she was employed by NASA.
In order to prepare her colleagues for the inevitable shift away from manual computing and towards electronics, Vaughan learned herself the programming language FORTRAN, which was used in early computers. From there, she taught it to many of her coworkers.
She eventually joined the newly established Analysis and Computation Division, a race and gender-integrated team working to broaden the scope of electronic computing, along with a number of her West Area Computing coworkers. She repeatedly applied for management positions but was never successful.
Later Life and Legacy
While caring for her six children and working at Langley for 28 years, Dorothy Vaughan. One of her children also worked there. Vaughan eventually retired in 1971 at the age of 71.
During her retirement, she remained involved in both her neighbourhood and her religion, but she had a rather quiet existence. Vaughan passed away on November 10, 2008, at the age of 98, little than a week after Barack Obama was elected as the country’s first Black president.
When Margot Lee Shetterly released her nonfiction book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” in 2016, the world became aware of Vaughan’s story.
The novel was adapted into a well-liked movie called “Hidden Figures,” which won the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble (the guild’s equivalent of a best picture award) and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.
One of the three central figures in the movie, along with her coworkers Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, is Vaughan. Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer plays the part of her.