PETER FROST looks at the start of the 1960s when the Space Race was being played out in black and white
SIXTY years ago this year the Soviet Union launched the first artificial object into space. As Sputnik 1 bleeped its signal back to Earth, it put Soviet technology firmly ahead in what would become known as the Space Race. In Washington panic set in.
Just a month later things got worse for US space boffins when the USSR launched Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika onboard.
By early in 1958 the US was fighting back. It launched three satellites. But in April 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space.
Just weeks later Alan Shepard became the first American in space and three more weeks later president John F Kennedy pledged that the US would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
In 1963 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space. The US had no plans for female astronauts.
It might have been the space age but that didn’t stop the US still prasticing strict racial segregation. The obscene Jim Crow laws would not start to be swept away until the mid- 1960s Civil Rights Act.
In Nasa’s offices, workshops and laboratories across the land of the free there were signs designating separate work areas, kitchens, lavatories and even drinking fountains for “coloured” and white workers.
It also meant that schools, high schools, colleges, universities and training facilities were in general only open to white students and all too often only to white men.
Yet, as in every other aspect of US life, black women and men were not content with their lot. Be it blacks registering to vote, demanding a place for their sons and daughters in white-only schools, sitting at Woolworths lunch counters or refusing to ride at the back of the bus.
All over the land, black women and men were marching and demanding their civil rights. It is a battle that still goes on today.
Black women were striving to do their bit within the US space industry. Three in particular made a major contribution to US space exploration.
The incredible untold story of Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson has recently reached the big screen in a film entitled Missing Figures, alongside a book with the same title. J
ohnson was a physicist and mathematician who played a significant part in the US aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at Nasa.
She calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency backup return paths for many flights, including the early missions of John Glenn and Shepard and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon as well as the Space Shuttle programme.
Johnson was born in 1918, in West Virginia, the youngest of four children. Even though she showed an amazing talent for maths from an early age, local schools did not offer places for black students past the eighth grade; she and her family had to travel many miles to school.
After high school, she began attending the all-black West Virginia State College. In 1937 she left with the highest honours.
In 1939, she became one of three African-American students and the only woman selected to attend one of the graduate schools that the US Supreme Court had desegregated.
She decided on a career as a research mathematician. In 1952, she heard that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Naca) was hiring mathematicians at Hampton, Virginia. In 1953 she became part of pool of black women performing complicated calculations.
Johnson’s knowledge of analytic geometry was spotted by the male bosses. From 1953 to 1958, Johnson worked in a team of black women supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.
Then she was moved to the otherwise totally white male Guidance and Control Division. She could work with white men but was required to eat and use lavatories separate from her white colleagues.
She calculated the trajectory for the May 5 1961 space flight of ShepardShe married twice and had three daughters and sang in her church choir for 50 years.
President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 5 2016. The Computational Research Facility at Langley now bears her name.
Dorothy Johnson Vaughan was another black female mathematician. She too worked for Naca and then Nasa. In 1949 she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to supervise a Nasa department.
She applied at her local public library for a book on computers but blacks were not allowed to borrow books. She stole one and taught herself and her staff the programming language Fortran. This would lead to her later heading the programming section Nasa Langley.
Born Dorothy Johnson in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, she graduated from high school in 1925 and then in mathematics from Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio.
She became a teacher and married Howard S Vaughan Jnr in 1932.
In 1943, she began what developed into a 28 year-career as a mathematician and programmer at Nasa. Vaughan specialised in calculations for flight paths and computer programming.
In 1949, she was made the acting head of her black department, taking over from a white woman who had died. She was the first black supervisor at Naca and one of few female supervisors. She led a group composed entirely of African-American female mathematicians. Vaughan served for years in an acting role before being promoted officially.
Mary Winston Jackson was yet another African-American mathematician. She had a lifelong ambition to become a qualified aerospace engineer but that career was closed to both women and blacks.
It would take 34 years, a complicated court case and years of part-time and evening study for her to earn the most senior engineering title available.
Jackson was a Girl Scout leader for 30 years. In the 1970s, she and her group of black children created an amazing miniature wind tunnel for testing model airplanes. She was married with two children and died aged 83 on February 11 2005.
Donald Trump once famously pronounced: “Laziness is a trait in blacks.”
I wonder if those three brave and clever women who gave the United States such a leg up into space would agree with his judgement.