Editor’s note: “Let’s not forget” is our new recurring slideshow feature, in which we celebrate unsung scientists of HBCU history.
Before there was such a thing as a Macbook or a Thinkpad, before there was a Commodore 64, complicated computations had to be performed by humans. And at NASA, at the dawn of the Space Age, most of the people doing the computing were women.
Among the best of those “human computers” was Katherine Johnson, graduate of West Virginia State College, an HBCU located in Institute, near Charleston. (The college is now a university.) Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic 15 minute flight into space in 1961, as well as the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. During her 30-year career, she coauthored more than two dozen scientific papers.
Writer Margot Lee Shetterly is making sure Johnson and other women like her aren’t forgotten. In her upcoming book, Hidden Figures, she tells the stories of the African-American women mathematicians who helped America win the Space Age. The book will be made into a movie starring Taraji Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer.