Dorothy Vaughn was a pioneering African American mathematician and computer programmer who made significant contributions to the field of computer science and the early space program. Born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, Vaughn was the eldest of nine children. She excelled in math and science from a young age, and after completing high school, she went on to earn a degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University in Ohio.
After college, Vaughn worked as a teacher and later as a math instructor at a junior college in Virginia. In 1943, she took a job as a “human computer” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the organization that would later become NASA. As a human computer, Vaughn was responsible for performing complex calculations by hand to support the development of new aircraft and missiles. Despite the demanding nature of her work, Vaughn excelled in her role and was eventually promoted to the head of the West Area Computing unit, a group of African American women who provided computational support to NACA.
In the 1950s, as electronic computers began to revolutionize the field of science and technology, Vaughn recognized the importance of learning how to use these new machines. She took it upon herself to learn FORTRAN, one of the first high-level programming languages, and taught herself and her coworkers how to use it. As a result, she and the other members of the West Area Computing unit became some of the first African American computer programmers in the United States.
Vaughn’s expertise and leadership in the field of computer science were crucial to the success of the early space program. During the 1950s and 60s, she worked on a number of projects for NASA, including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. She played a key role in the development of software for the guidance and navigation systems of these spacecraft, and her contributions were essential to the success of the first manned lunar landing in 1969.
Despite her many accomplishments, Vaughn faced significant challenges and obstacles as an African American woman in a field dominated by white men. She and the other members of the West Area Computing unit were often treated unfairly and were not given the same opportunities as their white counterparts. However, Vaughn refused to let these challenges hold her back and worked tirelessly to prove her worth. She was a pioneer and an inspiration to many, and her contributions to the field of computer science and the early space program have had a lasting impact.
In conclusion, Dorothy Vaughn was a remarkable woman who made significant contributions to the field of computer science and the early space program. Her determination and hard work in the face of adversity serve as a reminder of the importance of perseverance and the power of one person to make a difference.