Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero

Dorothy Vaughan was an African–American mathematician and "Human Computer" who spent her entire career helping America stay ahead of the curve during the space race.
Christopher McFadden

Dorothy Vaughan was an American computer programmer and mathematician who made significant contributions to the early U.S. space program. She was also the first Black American supervisor at NASA, a role she would continue to hold up to and beyond its merger with NASA.

Dorothy Johnson (her maiden name) was born on the 10th September 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her family would later move to West Virginia in 1917

In 1929 she graduated from Wilberforce University, Ohio, with a Bachelors in Mathematics.  After graduation, she married Howard S. Vaughan and took up a role as a math teacher in Virginia. 

The advent of the Second World War would change her life forever. In December of 1943, she left her teaching job and began working at NACA's West Area Computing Unit.

Although only meant to be a temporary war position she would stay with NACA for many years. Dorothy Vaughan would be promoted to lead the West Computers in 1949, making her the very first black women ever to hold that position in NACA's history.

She would stay with NACA for almost another decade until NACA merged with NASA in 1958. Many of her old team also joined her at NASA under their Analysis and Computation Division.

By this point in its history, America's space program began to embrace electronic computers. This prompted Vaughan and her team to learn how to program them.

Dorothy would quickly become very adept at FORTRAN and help upskill her colleagues to do the same. She would stay with NASA for another few decades until her retirement in 1971

Dorothy Vaughan would die on the 10th November 2008 in Hampton Virginia. She was 98 years old.

Early years: Dorothy Earns a Bachelor of Mathematics

Dorothy Vaughan was born Dorothy Johnson, in Kansas City, Missouri on the 20th September 1910 to her mother Annie and Father Leonard Johnson. 

The young family soon moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. Several years later she would graduate from Beechurst High School in 1925

Dorothy would apply for and win, a full-tuition scholarship at the historically black college in Ohio, Wilberforce University

She would later graduate in 1929 with a B.A. in Mathematics. 

Wilberforce University
Dorothy won a scholarship to Wilberforce University, Ohio. Source: Wilberforce University

After graduation, Dorothy was encouraged by her professors at Wilberforce to pursue graduate study at Howard University. She refused and began working a teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School, in Farmville. Her decision was influenced by the poor economic conditions of the Great Depression.  Dorothy felt obliged to help her family through this tough time.

During this time, she met and married Howard Vaughan Jr. in 1932. The couple later moved to Newport News in Virginia where they would have six children together: Ann, Maida, Leonard, Kenneth, Michael, and Donald.

Dorothy Vaughan Starts her journey with NACA

Dorothy Vaughan joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA) West Area Computing unit in December of 1943. In order to fully commit to this role, she left her teaching job.

Her new position at NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was only meant to be temporary war job, at least Dorothy believed so. Little did she know that this was to be the beginning of a 28-year journey.

Dorothy soon joined fellow African–American female mathematicians at NACA called the "human computers".

The term "human computers" was not a new concept. Female "computers" worked at Havard University to help analyze star photos during the later 19th and early 20th Century. 

These women would make fundamental discoveries in the field of astronomy. Williamina Fleming, for example, classified stars based on their temperature. Annie Jump Cannon developed a stellar classification system still used today (from coolest to hottest stars: O, B, A, F, G, K, M).

NACA's "human computers" were responsible for making complex calculations and analyze reams of data for aerospace engineers. This team soon built a reputation and earned the nickname, The West Computers

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero

Some of NACA's human computers, Dorothy Vaughan, Lessie Hunter and Vivian Adair. Source: Ras67/Wikimedia Commons

The “West Computers” help build the space program

Long before the development of electronic computers "computers" referred to people, not machines. It was a job title given to any person who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. 

These "computers" would read, calculate and plot data from tests being conducted in Langley's wind tunnels. Not to mention any one of its other research divisions. 

They were normally assigned to either an individual engineer or team depending on the task at hand.

"Human Computers", like Dorothy Vaughan, would play an integral and vital role in both aeronautical and aerospace research at the lab from the mid-1930s into the 1970s.

Their work, in no small part, would help the U.S. keep pace with the high output demand of WW2 and the early space race. An impressive and important role but even better Langley's "computers" were all women.

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
An example portion of hand equation from one of Langley's "computers", Betty Stafford Malone. Source: Malone Estate/NASA

During the early 1940's Langley started to recruit African-American women with college degrees to swell the ranks of their "computers". At first, these women were grouped into a segregated section of the facility.

They would quickly earn a reputation for their abilities and earned the nickname, "West Area Computers" or "West Computers". A name they would become immensely proud of.

At this time all calculations were completed with the aid of a slide rule and results recorded in logs and plotted on graphs. Shifts often ran around the clock during the war, a drastic change in households where previously the mother had stayed at home.

An enormous amount and variety of research were completed at Langley by the "Human Computers". During the Second World War, they concerned themselves with testing transonic and supersonic flight research and aiding the early space program. 

This work required very specialized knowledge, and Langley’s computers needed to devise computing methods and techniques specific to aeronautics and aerospace research. Some would become so specialized that they were able to write books on their subject. Helen Willey, for example, edited a Handbook for Data Reduction in the Eight-Foot Transonic Tunnel. 

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
A "computer" at her work with a microscope and the Friden calculating machine. Source: NASA

During the later 1940's electronic computers began to be introduced to Langley. "Human Computers" would now need to learn how to programme these as well as their normal duties. 

Women who worked as "Human Computers", included the "West Computers", would often report how the job was both challenging, rewarding and full of opportunity. Many would end up making long-term careers from one originally thought to be short-term or temporary. 

Many "computers" took a great pride in their work and thoroughly enjoyed the challenges the role offered. Sadly they historical contributions of there women have largely been overlooked in history. Nevertheless, they played a critical role in research conducted at Langley.

The Tide Turns for the better with President Roosevelt

At this time in American history, segregation was in full effect but moves had been made two years earlier by the U.S. Government to address this.

In 1941, President Roosevelt signed the groundbreaking Executive Order 8802. This legal instrument prohibited racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the nations defense industry. 

He also signed Executive Order 9346 that was intended to end racial segregation and discrimination during hiring and promotion in federal agencies and defense contractors.

It was a strongly held belief, this early in the war, that overwhelming air power would win the war. To this end, airplane production was already beginning to ramp up. 

This new demand for aircraft needed significant numbers of engineers to supply them. It also needed many more mathematicians. craftsman and skilled tradesman to meet production targets.

Thanks to this NACA's laboratory began to significantly hire more racial minorities and women to meet their ever-increasing demand for data processors. Previously, in 1935, NACA had actually established an all-woman mathematics department concerned with performing complex calculations. 

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
Floor plan of West Area Cafeteria in 1944 with segregated facilities. Source: NASA

After America entered WW2, new recruits soon flooded in. They would soon find themselves in a department working to tight deadlines with 24-hour shifts in prevalence.

Despite moves by the incumbent Roosevelt administration, Jim Crow Laws were still in place throughout many southern states. These required colored workers to work separately from their white counterparts. This would include the use of bathrooms and dining areas.

Dorothy Vaughan was soon assigned to NACA's "West Area Computing" unit. This was an all-black female group of mathematicians. Over time individuals and the team as a whole soon distinguished themselves.

They helped contribute vital information to many areas of Langley laboratory's research. Most of their calculations were made either by hand or using the tools of the time.

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
NACA's seal. Source: Slick-o-bot /Wikimedia Commons

Dorothy Vaughan stands out and becomes head of the West Computers

Postwar, NACA's work would expand to support research and design for the recently founded United States space program. This was particularly strengthened by President John F. Kennedy in the '60's. 

Vaughan's career would flourish, despite the segregation conditions, and was quickly promoted to acting head of the West Area Computers in 1949. This was to replace her predecessor who had recently died.

This made her NACA's first ever black supervisor, not to mention one of its earliest female supervisors. She would now lead a team of mainly black women mathematicians.

She would remain an acting head for several years until formally being promoted to the position. 

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
Langley's Administration Building, circa 1930. The "human computer" pool was housed in this building. Source: NASA

Dorothy's new title immediately gave her Laboratory-wide visibility. She would also begin to collaborate with other well known "computers" like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock. This work would involve compiling a handbook of algebraic methods for calculating machines.

Dorothy Vaughan would become a strong advocate for her team members. She would even go as far as intervening personally when colleagues deserved promotion of pay rises. 

She would quickly become respected by NACA engineers who valued her input and recommendations. They would consider her one of the best and happily ask her to handle the more challenging tasks, personally.

Whilst at NACA the IBM was gradually growing in popularity. The first IBM computer used in the space program was the IBM Card Programmed Calculator

It was used, at first, to help develop missiles and rack the Soviet Union's progress with Sputnik. Programmers could only interact with the IBM by using a revolutionary programming language called FORTRAN.

Dorothy Vaughan quickly realized that machine computers would replace human ones in the not so distant future. She took it upon herself to learn FORTRAN and taught her colleagues computer language and other concepts to prepare them for the transition.

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
Dorothy would be inducted into the Langley Hall of Honor in 2017. Source: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

What was FORTRAN?

FORTRAN, for Formula Translation, was a computer programming language created in 1957 by John Backus. It considerably shortened the process of programming, making it far more accessible.

Its creation marked a significant leap forward in the development of computer programming languages in general. Previously programmers would need to write instructions in binary or hexadecimal arithmetic. 

This was a frustrating and labor-intensive process that ultimately led to Backus seeking a means of simplifying it. John would gather a team of 10 International Business Machine (IBM) employees to join him on his three-year-long development of FORTRAN.

This collaboration resulted in a  language that combined a form of English shorthand with algebraic equations. FORTRAN, once developed, enabled the rapid writing of computer programs that ran almost as efficiently as those hand-coded in machine (first generation) language.

At this time computers were still very expensive and rare things. Inefficient programs were a greater financial problem than the lengthy and painstaking development of machine-language programs. 

The eventual creation of efficient higher-level language, aka natural or third generation, opened up computer programming to engineers and scientists at large. This would spark an explosion in the development and use of computers in general.

FORTRAN with its ability to allow the creation of natural language that could run as efficiently as hand-coded ones would make it the programming language of choice in 1950's.  It would undergo a few updates in throughout the 1950's and '60's so that it could compete with other contemporary programming languages.

FORTRAN 77 was released in 1978, followed by FORTRAN 90 in 1991 and further updates in 1996 and 2004. After the 1970's fourth and fifth-generation languages would largely replace FORTRAN outside of academia. 

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
Genealogy tree of programming languages - Algol & Fortran family. Source: Shazz,Borkowsk/Wikimedia Commons

NACA merges with NASA and everything changes

Dorothy Vaughan served as a NACA supervisor for almost a decade until 1958. At this time NACA was formally incorporated into the newly founded NASA. This single event would see the closure of all segregated facilities.

Dorothy and many West Computers would be transferred to NASA joining its new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). This was mixed sex and mixed racial meritocratic division intended to push the frontier of electronic computing.

As the years passed the center would evolve. The "human computers" would morph into electronic computer programmers. There work would ultimately help John Glenn get into orbit in 1962.

At this point in NASA's history, they had begun to integrate electronic computers more and more. This would require many of the team to become accustomed to computer programming, mainly FORTRAN. She would also contribute significantly to the  Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

In a later 1994 interview, Dorothy would recall of this time as being on "the cutting edge of something very exciting." She also responded to being asked what it was like being a Black American woman at the time. She replied, "I changed what I could, and what I couldn't, I endured."

Dorothy would stay with NASA until 1971 when she finally retired. She also sought, but never succeeded in getting, another management position at Langley. 

Incredibly despite her illustrious career at Langley, she managed to find the time to raise her six children. One of them would also join her at NASA-Langley facility.

Throughout this period she lived in Newport News, Virginia and commuted to work at Hampton via public transportation.

Dorothy Vaughan: NASA's "Human Computer" and American Hero
NASA's Langley Research Center, circa 2011. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The West Computers help build the Scout rockets

Dorothy Vaughan and her team played an important role developing one of NASA's most reliable launch vehicles of all time. This vehicle is called the Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test or SCOUT for short. 

SCOUT was a four-stage solid fuel satellite delivery system that was able to launch a 385-pound (175kg) satellite into a 500-mile (805 km) orbit of the Earth. Since the 1950's there have been 118 scout launches, 96% of which were successful. These launches included the successful delivery of, no less than,  23 satellites for international space organizations.


Contributors to the project, including Vaughan and her "West Computers", helped make a unique contribution to America's space program. Their labors resulted in the creation of a launch vehicle system that would set the standard for simplicity, productivity, and reliability of space programs in general.

NASA employees cant claim all the credit, however. They were often assisted by LTV Missiles and Electronics Group of Dallas employees. LTV Missiles was initially awarded the contract to help develop the airframe and launcher in 1959.

This was the start of a partnership that would last throughout the entire lifespan of the SCOUT project. Each member of the team established an uncompromised standard for exactness and showed an unwavering pursuit of excellence. 

The SCOUT family of rockets' configuration would continue to evolve over its lifetime. NASA's current Scout G-1 is still very similar in appearance to its 1950's ancestors. 

After many years of faithful service, the system's management was transferred to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland in 1991Today SCOUT has been retired and moved to The National Air and Space Museum where it joined other NASA veterans like the Jupiter, Aerobee and, Vanguard rockets.

Dorothy Vaughan’s Legacy and inspiring journey

Dorothy Vaughan would continue to work with NASA until 1971 at the age of 60. She would live for another 38 years until her death on November 10th, 2008

She was a member of  Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Black/African American sorority. Dorothy was also an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She would often be seen participating in musical and missionary activities.

She even wrote a song called "Math, Math".

Dorothy was survived by her four children, ten grandchildren, and a total of fourteen grandchildren. 

In 2016 a book about Dorothy Vaughan's life story, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, was written and published Margot Lee Shetterly.

This book highlighted her contributions to the U.S. Space program, as well as those of her fellow West Computers. The book was made into a critically acclaimed film the very same year.

Vaughan is played by Octavia Spencer in the film which also includes two of her colleagues  Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson. The film's plot primarily revolves around the trio calculating flight trajectories for Project Mercury and Apollo 11 in the 1960's. 

Dorothy Vaughan's trailblazing career helped, in no small part, lay the groundwork for other women to follow in her tracks and pursue careers in STEM. Not to mention helped the United States stay ahead of the curve during the space race. 

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