Black women and space exploration at Hampton museum

By Kenya Waugh

The Hampton History Museum is to honor three of the many women behind NASA's space expeditions in an exhibit called, "When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA's Human Computers," opening Saturday. The exhibit will feature articles and pictures which document women's contribution to American history.

Starting in the 1930s, the Langley Research Center hired five women to resolve engineers' formulas calculated in flight and wind tunnel tests. By 1942, these women became vital to the success of NASA through their scientific results. In the following decade, NASA integrated its computing coalition and included African-American women.

"These women were absolutely integral to the process, working as specialized mathematicians on complex orbital mechanics with their brains," said museum curator Allen Hoilman. Hoilman decided to create the exhibit after previously meeting Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman whose calculations helped successfully launch John Glenn into space in 1962. He cited Johnson's math manual development, which today's engineers use.

Hoilman began gathering memorabilia in May for the exhibit, in an effort to capture an ignored yet pertinent part of history. The exhibit has three components: a section about computer systems at NASA during the 1950s, a video biography about Johnson called "Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loves to Count," and artifacts such as a mechanic calculating machine. The exhibit also highlights African-American mathematicians Dorothy Vaughn and Hampton native Mary Jackson.

While some Hampton University students saw "Hidden Figures," a film released in December that detailed the stories of these women, others who did not found the museum's new exhibit relevant to their own history as African-American college students.

"I think this story is extremely important because black women aren't taught that we are future scientists, or at least I wasn't in high school," said Alexis Weston (pictured right), a sophomore English major from Temecula, California. Weston also said that as a Hampton student, she feels directly related to history thanks to Jackson's work. Other female students interviewed resonated with the stories of Jackson, Johnson and Vaughn on a deeper level, as many felt that the female engineers empowered black women to achieve their goals.

Njeri Fullwood, a sophomore psychology major from Largo, Maryland, said that she wanted to especially see the film and learn about their story with her younger sister: "My mom took both of us and we all cried. These women were going through so much while still doing what they loved. My sister really wants to be a nurse later in life, and I want her to understand that the possibilities are endless for black women."

The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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