The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceeBook - 2016
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The speed of sound, about 761 miles per hour at sea level in dry air at 59 degrees Fahrenheit, varied depending on temperature, altitude, and humidity. It was long thought to be a physical limit on the maximum speed of an object moving through the air. As an airplane flying at sea level in dry air approached Mach 1, or 100 percent of the local speed of sound, air molecules in front of the flying plane piled up and compressed, forming a shock wave, the same phenomenon that caused the noise associated with the crack of a bull whip or the firing of a bullet. ... either the plane or the pilot or both would disintegrate from the force of the shock waves. But on October 14, 1947, pilot Chuck Yeager, flying over the Mojave Desert in an NACA-developed experimental research plane called the Bell X-1, pierced the sound barrier for the first time in history, a fact that was corroborated by the female computers on the ground ...
Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production. The same evolutionary forces prevailed to replicate a particular model’s positive traits and breed out excess drag and instability. The P-51A Mustang was a good plane; the P-51B and P-51C were great planes. After several rounds of refinement in the Langley wind tunnels, the Mustang achieved its apotheosis with the P-51D.
There were black jobs, and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folks’ houses, stemming in the tobacco plant—those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter— those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer—now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training.
“Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” were entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, Roosevelt said, addressing the American people in his 1941 State of the Union address.
In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.
Of course, while moving the air over the object was similar to flying through the air, it wasn’t identical, so one of the first concepts Dorothy had to master was the Reynolds number, a bit of mathematical jujitsu that measured how closely the performance of a wind tunnel came to mimicking actual flight. Mastery of the Reynolds number, and using that knowledge to build wind tunnels that successfully simulated real-world conditions, was the key to the NACA’s success. Running the tunnels during the war presented yet another logistical challenge, as the local power company rationed electricity. The NACA nuts ran their giant turbines into the wee hours if necessary, engineers pressing the machines for answers to their research questions like night owls on the hunt for mice. Residents who lived near Langley complained about the sleep-disrupting roar of the tunnels.
“Tu m’entends tout, n’est-ce pas?” the countess inquired, seeing the reserved Negro maid paying close attention to her every bon mot. Katherine nodded sheepishly.
“Katherine should finish the report,” Skopinski said to Pearson. “She’s done most of the work anyway.” Henry Pearson had the reputation of being less than supportive of the advancement of female employees, but whether it was circumstance, the triumph of hard work over bias, or an incorrectly deserved reputation, it was on his watch that Katherine put the finishing touches on her first research report on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1959. “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” went through ten months of editorial meetings, analysis, recommendations, and revisions before publication in September 1960—the first report to come out of Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division (or its predecessor, the Flight Research Division) by a female author.
Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.
Achievement through hard work, social progress through science, possibility through belief . . . when Levi reached out and took hold of the first-place trophy, Mary witnessed, in one proud and emotional moment, the embodiment of so much that she held dear.
Officially, the derby was the boy’s show, from building the car to crouching inside it on race day. Parents (usually fathers; Mary was one of the very rare derby moms) were supposed to stand back and offer only advice, but it was usually hard to tell who savored the engineering project more, the parent or the child.
The early 1960s were an inflection point in the history of computing, a dividing line between the time when computers were human and when they were inanimate, when a computing job was handed off to a room full of women sitting at desks topped with $500 mechanical calculating machines and when a computing job was processed by a room-sized computer that cost in excess of $1 million. Dorothy Vaughan was keenly aware of that undulating invisible line that separated the past from the future. At fifty years old and many years into her second career, she reinvented herself as a computer programmer. Engineers still made the pilgrimage to her desk, asking for her help with their computing. Now, instead of assigning the task to one of her girls, Dorothy made a date with the IBM 704 computer that occupied the better part of an entire room in the basement of Building 1268, the room cooled to polar temperatures to keep the machine’s vacuum tubes from overheating.
Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was the part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night.
As the rocket blasted from the launchpad and accelerated into the sky toward maximum velocity, the aerodynamic pressure on the capsule also increased to a point known as “max Q.” If the capsule wasn’t strong enough to withstand the forces acting on it at max Q, it could simply explode. A Republican senator from Pennsylvania called the Mercury capsule-Atlas rocket pairing “a Rube Goldberg device on top of a plumber’s nightmare.
On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became in one fell swoop the first human in space and the first human to orbit Earth.
“Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go.
The space age and television were coming into their own at the same time. NASA was acutely aware that the task before them wasn’t only about making history but also about making a myth, adding a gripping new chapter to the American narrative that worshiped hard work, ingenuity, and the triumph of democracy.
As a seasoned test pilot, Glenn knew that the only way to remove all danger from the mission was to never leave Earth.
Everything rested upon the brain busters’ mastery of the laws of physics and mathematics. The mission was colossal in its scope, but it required both extreme precision and the utmost accuracy.
Two vehicles and 238,900 miles: three days there and three days back. Twenty-one hours on the surface of the Moon for two astronauts in the lunar lander, while the service module circled the heavenly body in a parking orbit. Katherine knew better than anyone that if the trajectory of the parked service module was even slightly off, when the astronauts ended their lunar exploration and piloted their space buggy back up from the Moon’s surface, the two vehicles might not meet up. The command service module was the astronauts’ bus—their only bus—back to Earth: the lander would ferry the astronauts to the waiting service module and then be discarded. If the two vehicles’ orbits didn’t coincide, the two in the lander would be stranded forever in the vacuum of space.
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The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
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