Mathematicians Beyond White Dudes No. 2, Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan in her twenties.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008)

Those who speak of NASA’s pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan, but as the head of the NASA’s segregated West Area Computing Unit, Vaughan was both a respected mathematician and NASA’s first African-American manager. She helped paved the way for NASA current robust and diverse workforce and leadership.

Dorothy Vaughan came to the NASA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts prevailed– as did Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.

She is considered to this day a “human computer” as she helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens.