Snapshot: NASA’s “Human Computers” and the Hidden Figures movie story

IBM mainframes play a big role in space program too

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NASA

A math story

The film Hidden Figures details an inspiring story about three particular African-American women mathematicians who were highly indispensable to the achievement of early spaceflight. The movie also involves some cool old mainframes and other high tech gear. Take a gander.

Human computers

Human computers

According to NASA the film "Hidden Figures," based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, centers on the stories of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, African-American women who were mathematicians working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. NASA describes the work these human “computers,” performed with an early IBM mainframe to develop computations that let John Glenn become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.

Katherine Johnson
NASA

Katherine Johnson

While Katherine Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight, she also handled the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Mary Jackson
NASA

Mary Jackson

From NASA: Mary Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Dorothy Vaughan
NASA

Dorothy Vaughan

From NASA: Photograph of Dorothy Vaughan (left) with Lessie Hunter (center), Vivian Adair (right) and Margaret Ridenhour and Charlotte Craidon in back. Vaughan began her career at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory's segregated "West Area Computing" unit and was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA's first African American supervisor.

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NASA

Long history of excellence

The notion of humans as computers was not new, even in the 1960s when Hidden Figures takes place. According to NASA: “Before the development of electronic computers, the term “computer” referred to people, not machines. It was a job title, designating someone who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. Over the next 30 years, hundreds of women, most with degrees in math or other sciences would join those first five computers at Langley.” Photograph of 4X4 Supersonic Pressure Tunnel staff taken in 1950s, with 'human computers' in the front row. From NASA.

Big Iron

Big Iron

As for the hardware of the movie-period, IBM said it installed and maintained three large-scale computers which funneled all flight information to NASA Mission Control: two 7090 transistorized computers located at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a 709 computer in Bermuda. The two IBM 7090 computers determined powered flight trajectory parameters and the present position of the spacecraft. They predicted future spacecraft position and transmitted continuous data throughout the flight.

Orbital calculations

Orbital calculations

The IBM 709 computer calculated normal orbital flight information in addition to its most important function -- determining trajectory dynamics during the critical launch and early orbit phase. The 709 computer analyzed data from local radar and telemetry sources in real-time, IBM said.

More high-tech

More high-tech

In a video released by IBM, Professor Arthur Cohen, the mathematician who led IBM's team that supported Project Mercury, recounts Alan Shepard's flight into space and the role of technology in the mission.

real time computer complex

Link to mission control

The photo here is the Real-Time Computer Complex (RTCC) in Houston, which was an IBM computing and data processing system at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center—now called the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center—that collected, processed and sent to Mission Control information to direct every phase of an Apollo mission.

Langley history
NASA

Langley history

NASA Langley began life as the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1917, around the same time that neighboring Langley Air Force Base was founded. The Air Force facility marked its 100th birthday in 2016.

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NASA

Up to date

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, poses for a photo with awardees of the Langley West Computing Unit Group Achievement Award at a reception to honor NASA's "human computers" on Dec. 1, 2016, at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Va. Afterward, the guests attended a premiere of "Hidden Figures," a film which stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician, physicist, and space scientist, who calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn's first orbital flight in 1962. Also featured are Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, Johnson’s colleagues in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. 

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Here is a playlist of a ton of Hidden Figures video previews: