Women have always been part of the American space program, even if sometimes they’ve had to take a back seat in the rocket.
2018 marked the debut of a popular new sci-fi trilogy, Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” series, about space explorers in an alternate America. In 2019 we lost Jerrie Cobb, NASA’s first female astronaut. And now in 2020 we say goodbye to pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the real-life inspirations for the hit movie “Hidden Figures.”
Pilots, engineers, mathematicians, scientists — these are the heroes whose skills in STEM and other areas made space travel possible in the first place.
Our journey through the history of women at NASA begins 50 years ago…
Man on the Moon
The Space Race is in full sprint. Satellites and astronauts are circling the globe, and the United States is poised to up the ante on the U.S.S.R., working furiously toward the goal set just half a decade earlier by then-President John F. Kennedy: land a man safely on the moon and bring him home again. In December, Apollo 8 and its crew orbit the moon, making the dream of landing a man on the moon seem more plausible than ever.
While NASA is consumed with reaching the moon, back on Earth, America is in turmoil. Reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the nation is at war with itself over the Vietnam War and issues of equality. For more than a decade, the civil rights movement has been marching toward a fairer, more just society.
Now in 1968, the movement for women’s rights is gaining momentum. The National Organization for Women, founded just two years earlier, issues a Bill of Rights advocating the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, equal and non-gender-segregated education, enforcement of prohibitions against sex discrimination in employment, and more.
And then, in December 1968, there begins a relatively quiet but important conversation between an activist in northern California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NOW member Nita Ladewig writes to NASA to protest the exclusion of women from the astronaut program. Why are there no women astronauts? And also, by the way, Ladewig wants to know, what’s up with all of the space missions being named after male gods?
NASA’s response: we haven’t yet found any qualified women scientists or pilots.
In 1968, NASA has yet to invite any women to become astronauts, but hundreds of women have been working behind the scenes for decades. Many are computers, mathematicians crunching the numbers to get men safely to the moon and back. Some are engineers or astronomers, scientists pushing the limits of what humankind can accomplish.
Pearl Young (1895–1968), physicist
Young was the first woman to be hired by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NASA predecessor) in a professional role — in 1922.
Working at NACA’s Langley research lab in Hampton, Virginia, she overhauled scientific and technical writing practices as the lab’s first Chief Technical Editor and advocated strongly for quality over speed.
When she died in 1968, she bequeathed $15,000 to the city of Hampton for the construction of benches and shelters at the town’s bus stops.
Kitty Joyner (1916–1993), engineer
Joyner was NASA’s first woman engineer.
Hired by NACA in 1939, Joyner worked at Langley where she managed several wind tunnels and was the Branch Head of the Facilities Cost Estimating Branch, Office of Engineering and Technical Services.
She left NASA in 1971.
Marjorie Townsend (1930–2015), electrical engineer
An electrical engineer who joined NASA in 1959, Joyner was the first woman to manage a spacecraft launch.
She was also co-inventor of a digital telemetry system — patented in 1968 — that was part of the Nimbus program weather satellite.
NACA began hiring women mathematicians as computers in the 1930s. But with U.S. entry into World War II, more computers were needed than ever before.
As reported in the Daily Press, an April 1942 memo highlighted how key the computers were to operations at the Langley lab in Virginia, one of NACA’s main facilities:
“The engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could.”
Over time, many of the computers would take on increasingly complex roles, with several working as de facto engineers — but often without the title or pay grade offered to men with similar credentials.
Harriet J. DeVries Smith worked as a computer at the NACA Muroc (later NASA Dryden) spaceflight center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In a NASA oral history interview, she recalled:
“When I first came to the Edwards, I was put in an office with a bunch of women, and they called us computers. The guys that came were put into various engineering offices and were given jobs as engineering aides. So they really were given more of, in my view, a growth opportunity. They all worked on various projects.”
Harriet DeVries Smith, engineer
Tired of the rote computing work (“I really believed at the time I could have done it with about a fifth-grade education”), DeVries Smith asked to switch to a role as an engineering aide.
And she did. That’s her in 1958.
Later in life, she went back to school and earned graduate degrees in engineering and aerospace.
Melba Roy Mouton (1929–1990), mathematician and computer programmer
Mouton graduated from Howard University in 1950 with a master’s degree in mathematics. In 1959 began working for NASA as a computer at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
She was head mathematician for Echo Satellites 1 and 2, and became a Head Computer Programmer and then Program Production Section Chief at Goddard.
In the 1960s she was Assistant Chief of Research Programs at NASA’s Trajectory and Geodynamics Division.
Geraldine Kaplan, engineer
Kaplan was an engineer at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In a 1968 interview, she made clear that it wasn’t a lack of aptitude preventing girls and women from pursuing careers in science:
“I think for women in particular, they don’t get the kind of encouragement, in high school and particularly in college, to go into scientific fields, engineering. This I feel is one of the reasons you don’t see women in this kind of work too many, not because, let’s say, people aren’t hiring. I say women aren’t available, there aren’t that many available because they aren’t encouraged to launch a career in scientific, or engineering.”
Annie Easley (1933–2011), computer programmer and coder
Easley began her NASA career in 1955 as a computer at NACA’s Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio (later the NASA Glenn Research Center).
When machine computers replaced humans, Easley evolved along with the technology becoming an adept FORTRAN computer programmer and coder.
One of only four black people in her lab when she was hired, she later said that she had never set out to be a pioneer.
“I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was.”
If it wasn’t always easy for women at NASA, it could be exponentially more difficult for women of color.
Take the black women who worked at Langley — in segregated Virginia — in the 1940s and ’50s. As the popular film Hidden Figures vividly illustrates, the black computers worked in a separate facility, used separate bathrooms, and sat at a separate “colored” table in the cafeteria.
Dorothy Vaughan (1910–2008), computer programmer
In 1943, Vaughan left her teaching position and accepted what she thought would be a temporary war job at NACA’s Langley research lab.
From 1949 to 1958, she headed the segregated West Area Computing Unit, making her NASA’s first black manager. Vaughan was a respected mathematician and pioneering computer programmer.
She retired in 1971 and was later portrayed by Octavia Spencer in the film “Hidden Figures.”
Katherine Johnson (1918–2020), mathematician
Johnson grew up the youngest of four in West Virginia. Because her local school system only allowed black students through eighth grade, Johnson attended a special high school program at West Virginia State, a historically black college 130 miles away. She graduated from high school at 14 and from college at 18, summa cum laude, with degrees in mathematics and French.
In 1953, she was hired by NACA to work as a computer at Langley. She was assigned to the segregated West Area Computers section supervised by Dorothy Vaughan. Johnson, whose story is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures,” persevered in the face of discrimination and personal tragedy. Her first husband died of a brain tumor in 1956 leaving her a working single mother of three.
One day Johnson was temporarily assigned to assist the all-male flight research team. Her knowledge of analytic geometry soon made her an essential asset.
But Johnson had to be “assertive and aggressive” to ensure she was included in meetings (women had not been) and her name was attached to reports she had written (women’s names were typically left off). Her persistence paid off and her impact on the success of the space program is immeasurable.
In 1961, she calculated the trajectory for the flight of first American in space Alan Shepard. As John Glenn prepared to orbit Earth, he insisted that Johnson be called on to verify the calculations of the newly installed machine computers. Later Johnson worked on Apollo 11, the Space Shuttle program, and plans for a mission to Mars.
In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Mary Jackson (1921–2005), engineer
Jackson overcame discrimination against women and against people of color to become the first black woman engineer at NASA.
Portrayed in “Hidden Figures” by Janelle Monae, Jackson had to petition the city of Hampton for special permission to participate in graduate level courses at whites-only Hampton High School in order to qualify as an engineer.
In early 2018, Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah, was renamed in her honor. The school had previously been named for President Andrew Jackson.
Miriam Mann (1907–1967), chemist and mathematician
Mann was one of the first black women hired to work as computers at Langley. A graduate of Talladega College with a major in chemistry and minor in mathematics, Mann — like other black female applicants — was required to take a 10-week course at Hampton Institute.
As Mann’s daughter recounted to NASA, and “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly describes, Mann boldly took on the segregated system. When a sign that said “colored computers” appeared on a table in the cafeteria, Mann removed it. The sign returned, and Mann removed it again. Eventually Mann won, and the sign disappeared for good.
A small victory, perhaps, but not an inconsequential one in a time when a black person might be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat or even lynched, as Shetterly noted in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine.
Daisy Alston (1927–2018), mathematician
Alston was also a member of the West Area Computers group at Langley.
After earning her BS in Mathematics at Hampton Institute in 1948, she “had a distinguished career with NASA as a Data Analyst/Aerospace Technologist with 30 years of service,” according to her obituary.
Getting people safely into space and home again takes more than clever minds. It also takes talented fingers.
Over the decades at NASA scores of expert stitchers — mostly women — have carefully crafted whatever was needed out of whatever material was required.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could go to the moon, they needed something to wear. So in 1968 a team of expert seamstresses at International Latex Corporation designed and built the spacesuits worn by the astronauts of Apollo 11. The women created three suits for each astronaut.
So, as we’ve seen, there were plenty of talented female scientists around NASA in the 1960s, as well as in the decades preceding.
But were there any pilots?
Women, of course, had been flying planes since the beginning of flying planes. Famous female aviators like Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, and Ruth Law (above) were just the tip of the iceberg.
There were many women in those early decades of aviation. During World War II, American women had more opportunities to pilot than ever before.
More than 1,000 women put their piloting skills to good use flying for the military as Women Airforce Service Pilots.
One of these was a California native who was one of only two Chinese Americans to serve as WASPs.
Maggie Gee (1923–2013), pilot and physicist
Though Gee didn’t wind up working for NASA, she wasn’t far off. After the war Gee had a long and distinguished career as a research physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federal nuclear research facility at Berkeley focused on science and technology applied to national security.
The First Lady Astronauts
After the Mercury 7 astronauts were selected in 1959, a group of female pilots was recruited in 1960 for a privately-funded training program. The women chosen would undergo the same tests as their male counterparts. Of the 25 women considered, 13 were selected to proceed with the testing.
Later known as the Mercury 13, this talented baker’s dozen of women were called the FLATs — First Lady Astronaut Trainees.
Jerrie Cobb (1931–2019), pilot and would-be astronaut
Cobb was already a record-breaking pilot when she was selected as one of the Mercury 13.
Growing up in Oklahoma, she was encouraged to fly from an early age. At 12 she flew her father’s plane for the first time. By 19 she had her private and commercial pilot’s licenses and was teaching men how to fly. At 21 she was delivering military fighters and bombers to air forces around the world. When she became the first woman to fly in the Paris Air Show, the world’s largest air exposition, her fellow fliers awarded her Pilot of the Year and Life magazine named her one of the “100 most important young people in the United States.”
By 1960, Cobb was an aviation executive, had logged 7,000 hours of flying time, and held world aviation records for distance, speed, and altitude.
With credentials like these, it’s no wonder Cobb was chosen for the First Lady Astronaut Trainee program.
Though 13 FLATs successfully completed phase I, most were unable to continue training due to family and work commitments. Three, including Cobb, went on to phase II and all three passed. After Cobb successfully finished the third phase, the other two women were scheduled for their phase III training.
But then the program was abruptly shut down.
Cobb and others appealed to President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, and a special Congressional subcommittee was convened.
Astronauts John Glenn (1921–2016), fresh off his historic spaceflight, and Scott Carpenter (1925–2013) testified that, under NASA’s selection criteria, women could not qualify as astronaut candidates.
NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs — but in 1962, women were still barred from Air Force training schools.
Despite being prohibited from flying military jets, several of the Mercury 13 had been employed as civilian test pilots, and many had considerably more propeller aircraft flying time than the male astronaut candidates (although not in high-performance jets, like the men).
In his testimony before Congress, astronaut John Glenn went so far as to say that it was the natural order of things for men, and only men, to be astronauts:
“The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
It is worth noting that while Glenn was admonishing women to follow the rules, he had benefited from NASA’s willingness to bend them.
Though NASA also required astronaut candidates to have engineering degrees, Glenn did not when he was selected for the program, having never completed the requirements for his Bachelor of Science. They let him fly anyway.
(It was only after his historic flight in February 1962, that his former school granted his degree.)
After Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in June 1963, interest in female astronauts was renewed.
Former U.S. Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce (1903–1987) published a scathing article in LIFE magazine criticizing the U.S. astronaut program for lagging behind Russia’s in this area. In her article, Luce made the names and faces of all the FLATs public for the first time.
American Women in Space
Finally, in 1978, NASA introduced its first female astronauts.
Sally Ride (1951–2012), astronaut
In 1983, Ride became the first American woman in space, a full two decades after Tereshkova of the U.S.S.R.
By breaking through one of the toughest glass ceilings there was, she inspired a generation of women, including me.
Judith Resnik (1949–1986), astronaut
Christa McAuliffe (1948–1986), teacher in space
Resnik was the second American woman in space and McAuliffe would have been the first regular citizen to orbit the Earth.
Resnik, an engineer from Akron, Ohio, had been recruited to the astronaut program by Nichelle Nichols of “Star Trek” fame and had logged 145 hours in orbit.
McAuliffe was an American history teacher in New Hampshire and mother of two when President Ronald Reagan announced NASA’s “Teacher in Space” program. McAuliffe, who had long dreamed of going to space, applied and was selected out of 11,000 applicants.
The two women were part of mission STS-51-L and were killed along with their fellow crew members when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off.
Janice Voss (1956–2012), astronaut
Voss was one of the most-accomplished and most-traveled women in space, having flown five times on the space shuttle and logged 18.8 million miles orbiting Earth. She was part of the mission that saw the space shuttle rendezvous with the Mir space station for the first time, and on another mission tested the behavior of fire in a weightless environment.
Kalpana Chawla (1962–2003), astronaut
Laurel Clark (1961–2003), astronaut
Astronauts Chawla and Clark had different trajectories into space.
Growing up in India, Chawla dreamed of designing airplanes. After earning her engineering degree, she moved to the U.S. where she earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering before beginning her career at NASA. As soon as she became a naturalized citizen, she applied to the astronaut program.
Clark, meanwhile, was born in Iowa and raised in Wisconsin. She became a medical doctor before serving as a captain and medical officer in the U.S. Navy until her selection to the astronaut corps in 1996.
In 2003 Chawla and Clark were serving as specialists on mission STS-107 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated over Texas upon reentry, killing the entire crew.
The Next Generation
Why is this history important? Because I want my daughter to know that she can do anything and go anywhere. The sky’s the limit? Hardly.
For me and so many girls growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, space exploration was a persistent theme. We were born into a world where men had just walked on the moon. We grew up in a world where a princess could kick butt in a galaxy far away and American women finally took their place in space.
Now, in the post-Space Shuttle era, space cowgirls seem harder to come by. There are still astronauts, and many of them are women (and a certain space princess and her friends can still be seen leading the resistance), but the United States isn’t as closely identified with space exploration as it once was. The news headlines we see about space these days are less excited over NASA and more so over private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
For those of us old enough to remember, Canaveral isn’t just a port en route to the Bahamas — it was and will always be a portal to the universe.
We remember and are grateful for those who came before and inspired us with their passion, determination, and skill.
Thank you, Katherine Johnson. You and your sister pioneers at NASA toiled without recognition or equal pay, pushed your way toward the top so that we could all reach higher.
You are the women whose shoulders my daughter will stand on as she blasts off on her own journeys of exploration.
Thank you for reaching for the stars and inspiring future generations to boldly go where no girl has gone before.