Black History Month: NASA’s human computers

Before the age of electronic computers, humans who did complex mathematical calculations by hand were called computers. The movie “Hidden Figures,” based on a book of the same name, tells the story of three Black women who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as human computers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They and their Black colleagues in the segregated West Area Computing Unit played an instrumental role in sending John Glenn to space in 1962 and getting him back to earth safely, but many of their NASA colleagues remain hidden figures to this day due to systemic racism that allows the achievements of their white colleagues to outshine theirs.

One of these hidden figures, Annie Easley, became a human computer at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory — then, simply called the Lab and known today as the Glenn Research Center — in Cleveland in 1955. Her first assignment involved running simulations for the Plum Brook Reactor, the first and only nuclear reactor that NASA has ever had. About the discrimination she faced as one of four Black employees at the Lab, Easley said, “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine” (Mills, 2017). When NASA began using International Business Machines (IBM) computers, human computers became programmers for the new electronic computers; Easley learned programming languages such as the Formula Translating System (Fortran) and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to support many of NASA’s programs. Easley developed the code used to analyze alternative energy technology, including the battery technology in early hybrid vehicles and the Centaur rocket, which was America’s first “high-energy upper stage launch vehicle” (NASA, 2017). 

Easley returned to school in the 1970s to earn her mathematics degree from Cleveland State, while still working for NASA. Because of her strong belief in education, she was very involved with outreach at NASA, encouraging women and people of color to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields through talks she gave with NASA’s Speaker’s Bureau. She also became an equal employment opportunity counselor, helping supervisors to address discrimination complaints around gender, race and age. She helped pave the way for gender equality at the Glenn Research Center when she and a coworker made a pact to wear suits to work; in Easley’s own words, “It did cause quite a stir, but there was one woman who said, ‘I was just waiting for the first one to wear pants.’ You know, we took the emphasis off [of] what you’re wearing. It’s more like what you’re actually producing” (Mills, 2017). 

Another hidden figure who had a significant impact on NASA’s progress is Dr. Christine Darden. She joined the ranks of human computers at NASA in 1967 after working as a math teacher. By Darden’s account, she didn’t experience anywhere near the level of racism her predecessors at NASA battled, which speaks to the hard work that Easley and her contemporaries did to create a more equitable environment at NASA. After eight years of crunching numbers as a computer, Darden, tired of doing grunt work for engineers, approached her supervisor to point out that she had the same qualifications as men who were being hired as engineers, a Master of Science in Applied Mathematics. Her daring won her a transfer to the engineering division where she began a long and fruitful career working in aerodynamics, specifically in minimizing the shock from sonic booms, which has thus far prevented supersonic commercial air travel.

Darden too returned to school while working for NASA and earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering from George Washington University in 1983. Her career spanned 40 years, during which she authored more than 50 publications in aerodynamics, directed research in various aeronautics programs at NASA centers and consulted on numerous government projects (Smith, 2020). In a talk at her alma mater, Darden spoke about her work: “I liked the challenge … I also liked not doing the same thing every day. Once I got into the engineering area, I’m writing programs and designing models. I am testing them in the wind tunnel. I’m writing papers and giving papers. I enjoyed the people I worked with. There were a lot of smart people there” (Wilson, 2018). 

Computer scientist Annie Easley and engineer Christine Darden are just a couple of the hidden figures whose work shaped the world we know today. There are so many brilliant people who deserve to have their accomplishments sung well into the future, and, yet, they fall by the wayside of history as systemic racism continues to erase their legacy and inscribe the names of undeserving white men in our history books instead. I hope you’ll join me in challenging this narrative by remembering the work of Easley and Darden.