The contributions made by North Carolina women mathematicians to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will be commemorated with a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker.
In the early days of aerospace engineering, people — not machines — performed the mathematical calculations necessary to put humans in space. Women comprised the majority of these “calculators” or “computers.” Among them were many from North Carolina who participated in some of the most widely recognized American aerospace achievements of the 20th century.
The marker recognizing their endeavors will be placed adjacent to the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, N.C. It will be dedicated on Friday, Sept. 22, following a program at 10:30 a.m. in the Explore on 5 classroom at the museum.
The work of these women broke barriers and paved the way for new generations of women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
Virginia Tucker, a graduate of Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC-Greensboro) from Hertford in Perquimans County, was among the first five women mathematicians assigned to the newly organized computer pool at Langley Research Center in Virginia in September 1935. During World War II, she led the rapid expansion of the pool by recruiting extensively throughout the South, successfully bringing many fellow North Carolinians into the computing ranks. By 1946, she had been promoted to the position of Overall Supervisor for Computing, overseeing the work of more than 400 women mathematicians across Langley.
While working for NASA’s precursor — the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA — at Muroc (later Edwards) Air Force Base in California, Mary Hedgepeth of Cleveland County and Roxanah Yancey of Person County processed raw instrument panel readings into functional engineering data in support of the X-plane program, a series of experimental rocket planes that broke the sound barrier and carried pilots to the edges of space, including test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Christine Barnes Richie, a graduate of North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University) from Wilson in Wilson County, arrived at Langley Research Center at a time when the facilities were still segregated. As part of the West Area Computers, Richie worked alongside Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, both of "Hidden Figures" fame, to analyze data and plot projections for the country's space program.
When NACA was absorbed by the newly organized National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, Langley and segregated facilities like it were integrated.
The work of the West Area Computers, however, paved the way for the likes of Dr. Christine Darden of Monroe in Union County, whose career is featured in the book "Hidden Figures." She began her NASA career as a computer at Langley Research Center in 1967. Soon after her arrival, she and her colleagues transitioned into computer programming, and Darden eventually made her way to engineering. She concluded a distinguished 40-year career with NASA in 2007 and is recognized today as one of the world’s foremost experts on supersonic wing design and sonic boom mitigation.
For more information about the historical marker and the event, please visit https://ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?MarkerId=H-126.
About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR) manages, promotes, and enhances the things that people love about North Carolina – its diverse arts and culture, rich history, and spectacular natural areas. Through its programs, the department enhances education, stimulates economic development, improves public health, expands accessibility, and strengthens community resiliency.
The department manages over 100 locations across the state, including 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, five science museums, four aquariums, 35 state parks, four recreation areas, dozens of state trails and natural areas, the North Carolina Zoo, the North Carolina Symphony, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, the American Indian Heritage Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Office of State Archaeology, the Highway Historical Markers program, the N.C. Land and Water Fund, and the Natural Heritage Program. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.