Unknown Pioneers – the inspiring story of the Rocket Girls

The Rocket Girls were created as human calculators to support scientists as part of the American space programme. They differed from their colleagues not only in terms of their gender, but also their skin colour – not exactly a minor issue in the USA of the 1950s. Nevertheless, women like Katherine Johnson managed to have impressive careers.

Katherine Johnson’s model career

Katherine Johnson in 1966

Katherine Johnson in 1966 - © NASA

The Rocket Girls left behind a legacy that went beyond their scientific contributions, serving as models for ambitious women scientists in more than just their technical knowledge. They also showed that the route to the destination often requires diversions, and that qualities such as courage, persistence, and hard work drive extraordinary careers just as much as raw talent.One particularly inspirational representative of the Rocket Girls was Katherine Johnson, who despite extremely dim prospects at the start of her career, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour. She was born in 1918 to a farmer and a former teacher in the state of West Virginia. She owed the fact that she was able to make use of her extraordinary gift for figures, despite the prevailing racial discrimination, to the support of her parents. She was also highly intelligent in general, allowing her to skip two classes. As such, her school career would have ended quickly under normal conditions, as she was not allowed to attend high school in White Sulphur Springs, where she lived. To enable her to attend her eighth grade classes, her parents made great sacrifices: her mother moves with Katherine and her three siblings to the city of Institute, 200 kilometres away, where there was a high school for African American children. As such, she spent a large proportion of each year living away from her father.

Dedicated teachers recognised their student’s mathematical gifts and supported her development, helping her to obtain a scholarship for college, where she studied mathematics and French. There, too, she found mentors who supported her towards her graduation, summa cum laude, in 1938. After graduating, she worked as a teacher as the scientific career she dreamed of seemed out of reach for a woman with her background. It would be another fourteen years, by which time she was a widowed mother of three, before she would get her chance: the Langley Research Center was specifically looking for female scientists for their computer pool.

The Rocket Girls help to win the space race

Dorothy Vaughan, the first female African American scientist at NASA, had been promoted to head of department as early as 1949. She headed up the computer pool, where only women were employed. Their task was to perform calculations on behalf of the scientists. Working as human calculators, the women were mainly valued for their tireless, dedicated work – but this role nevertheless left some women dissatisfied.

Katherine Johnson started work in the computer pool in 1953. It took her just two weeks to stand out among her many women co-workers when, together with a colleague, she was given a temporary transfer to the Flight Research Department. Despite racial segregation and prevailing gender stereotypes, she gained a place there on an equal footing alongside the exclusively white, male scientists, driven by her enthusiasm for her work – as she wanted to learn more about the background to the calculations that she was doing. Her speciality, analytical geometry, was especially useful when calculating trajectories.

Even as electronic computers began to make inroads, astronauts considered her computations to be beyond reproach. Over the course of her career, Katherine Johnson worked on the foundations for space travel. In addition, she calculated orbits for the Mercury programme, which was the first to put a human in orbit around the earth, and for the Apollo 11 moon mission. By the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, if not before, she had secured her place in the history of space travel and, by the time she retired in 1986, she remained loyal to NASA, serving many more projects thanks to her exceptional achievements.

True role models despite all the circumstances

The Rocket Girls were seen as foot soldiers of the emerging world of space travel and, as such, took on arduous yet essential tasks. Without the work of these women, the successes of the American space programme would probably never have been possible. However, some passionate female scientists took things a step further and jostled for the limelight alongside their colleagues, successfully making the leap into the male-dominated field of engineering at NASA. This is what happened to Mary Jackson, whose tireless dedication led to her becoming the first African-American woman to bridge the gap between the computer pool and an engineering position. She had more than a history of good work on her side; after work, she undertook additional university courses – after fighting for the right to access the educational institution that was otherwise reserved for whites only.


Movie trailer for Hidden Figures: the film version of the Rocket Girls’ story - © 20th Century Fox

As these human computers were threatened by obsolescence as electronic computers became more powerful, many of the Rocket Girls had already developed new skills and moved on, with many of them becoming sought-after programmers. Later on, they began working on the Space Shuttle and studied the planet’s resources with the help of satellite technology, even though most Rocket Girls had originally only been hired for routine analysis of wind tunnel testing.

The Rocket Girls’ achievements remain

What is left of the Rocket Girls, whose contribution to space travel was largely unknown until their story was filmed in 2016 as Hidden Figures? Through their scientific contributions, these strong women showed that it’s worth following your passions, despite meeting resistance from all sides along their journey. However, they were firm in their resolve to make the best of their situation, and Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson clearly showed how playing the long game paid off.

That makes the Rocket Girls a source of inspiration for ambitious female scientists as, anyone who is able to bring perseverance, courage, and ambition to the table alongside her specialist scientific skills can achieve anything in life. These are exactly the people that ARTS is looking for and, with the offers in our Jobs Board we offer candidates at all stages of their careers to follow their passion for mathematics, computing, science, or technology. The Rocket Girls show that progress needs talent and commitment more than anything else. Where you come from, and the gender you belong to, however, don’t matter at all.

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