With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
Hidden No More
Thanks to the blockbusters hit film, Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson has become a household name. However, another hidden figure, portrayed in the movie by Octavia Spencer, is just as extraordinary and her name is Dorothy Vaughn. Ms. Vaughn was born in 1910 in Kansas City, MO as Dorothy Johnson. She later moved with her parents to West Virginia where she graduated from her high school as valedictorian. As a result, she earned a full tuition scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest historically black private college in the United states. After graduation, she taught math in Farmville Virginia and married Howard Vaughan.
The War Years
In 1943 Mrs. Vaughan left her place as a math teacher for a position with Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. At the time, she believed this would be a temporary job for the war effort. She was assigned to the West Area Computing unit for “colored” mathematicians, human computers. She, like the others in her department, were able to perform complex mathematical computations in her head as well as analyze data for aerospace engineers. Soon the unit began to distinguish themselves with contributions to every area of research at Langley. The department provided data that was essential to the success of the early space program.
While in the beginning, the department heads were white, by 1949, Mrs. Vaughan was promoted thereby making her the first person of color to become a supervisor and one of the few female supervisors. Further, her promotion allowed her to collaborate with other “computers” of all races. Her work ethic was spotless. Not only did she serve at the helm of “West” for over a decade, but engineers highly valued her recommendations and often requested that she, personally, handle the work.
In 1958 NACA became NASA and all segregated areas were abolished. As such Mrs. Vaughan and several other ladies previously working in the segregated area transitioned to the Analysis and Computation Division which was on the cutting edge of electronic computing. The women formerly of West began to work in research and support of the US space program. In 1961 electronic computers were introduced and Mrs. Vaughan became an expert in FORTRAN programming language, which she taught herself. Further, she contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program which began in 1959. This system set the standard for launch vehicle simplicity, productivity, and reliability.
Retiring in 1971 at the age of 61, Dorothy Vaughan was a driving force in the US space race. Posthumously, in 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian awards in the US. Additionally, Vaughan crater on the far side of the moon was named for her in 2019 and in 2020 a satellite named for her was launched into space. Dorothy Vaughan was a remarkable woman who led the US into the stars.
Dunbar, Brian. “Scout Launch Vehicle Program.” Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/factsheets/Scout.html.
Loff, Sarah. “Dorothy Vaughan Biography.” NASA. NASA, November 22, 2016. https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography.
“Dorothy Vaughan.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 28, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dorothy-Vaughan.
Brandy R Williams (author) from West Virginia on February 16, 2021:
I am so glad you enjoyed this article. Writing about Mrs. Vaughan has been illuminating and I am simply in awe of her.
E Randall from United States on February 15, 2021:
Remarkable article, thank you for this. I saw the movie some years back. Had no idea of her contribution to get us to the moon. Thanks for sharing.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 15, 2021:
This is a very interesting article. Dorothy Vaughan was an amazing lady and the award was well deserved.