Invisible Forces: the Unknown Mothers of Space Exploration

It’s WORLD SPACE WEEK!  This year, the theme is Women in Space.  The history of women and space exploration is a huge topic – far from being “tokens,” as some might imagine, women have been absolutely integral to space exploration.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1786, who discovered several comets…

….to the pioneering software engineer Margaret Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton wrote the navigation code that launched the Apollo 11 moon shot mission, guided it back safely, and “set the foundation for modern software” as she did so. Women have lead the way in space exploration AND its close cousin field, computer programming.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software she and her team produced for the Apollo Project, 1969

It may come as a surprise that a woman was in charge of the software engineering that lead humankind to the moon in 1969. In fact, the very word “computer” was coined to refer to the women who were doing complex calculations in the field of astronomy as far back as the late 19th century. Women first served as “human computers” at Harvard College Observatory, calculating, measuring, and cataloguing thousands of images of stars taken on glass plates. The women were considered ideal for this work because they were thought to have a “large capacity for tedium,” were proven to be meticulous and accurate, and could be paid much less than a man. However overlooked and undervalued they were then, in 2021 we celebrate the fact that the work of these computers was the bedrock of modern space exploration and modern computing as we know it.

“Pickering’s Harem,” so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).

By World War II, “computers” had become fully established at the vanguard of technology. They were a large, but secretive group of female mathematicians who painstakingly made the essential ballistics calculations that eventually allowed the Allies to win World War II. As the war ended, computers transitioned into the “space race” and with it, into modern computing. Women were deeply involved not just in space exploration but the development of the first computer hardware and software, including ENIAC, the first programmable, digital computer. The face of so much of the technology we use today is female!

The incredible contribution of women in space exploration is brought fully alive by the caption attached to this historical photo. It reads: “The women of the Computer Department at NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station are shown busy with test flight calculations. The “computers” under the direction of Roxanah Yancey were responsible for accurate calculations on the research test flights made at the Station. There were no mechanical computers at the station in 1949, but data was reduced by human computers. Shown in this photograph starting at the left are: Geraldine Mayer and Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth with Friden calculators on the their desks; Emily Stephens conferring with engineer John Mayer; Gertrude (Trudy) Valentine is working on an oscillograph recording reducing the data from a flight. Across the desk is Dorothy Clift Hughes using a slide rule to complete data calculations. Roxanah Yancey completes the picture as she fills out engineering requests for further data.”

U.S. Army Photo”, number 163-12-62. Left: Patsy Simmers (mathematician/programmer), holding ENIAC board. Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board. Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board. Right: Mrs. Norma Stec (mathematician/programmer), holding BRLESC-I board.

Although computer programming and space exploration are both seen as predominantly male endeavors today, rest assured both fields were established through the labor of women.  In fact, the first known computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace!

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, writer and mathematician, 1840. Through her work on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” she published the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine.

After the war was won these “computers” continued the hard, tedious labor of calculating the trajectory of space flight, a story recently made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.  Katherine Johnson and a team of women of color did the essential calculations for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 spaceflight, which was such a success it set the American space program on its fast path to the moon. Astronaut John Glenn was such a firm believer in the work of these women that he did not fully trust the digital calculations that were being produced my the new electric computing technology. Before his spaceflight in 1962, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.”

Katherine Johnson, mathematician and physicist, at NASA in 1966

Everywhere you look in the story of space exploration, there is a tough, brave, intelligent woman.  However, because most people think of “astronauts” when they think of space exploration, and not the army of engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians behind them, space exploration can seem like more of a boys club than it actually is. 

Some of the Perseverance Mars Rover Team at work

If you want to understand just how integral women really are to space exploration, look at the incredible team that recently launched the Mars Perseverance Rover! The Mars Perseverance Rover was one of the most thrilling and complex achievements in the entire history of space exploration. We owe a debt to the many, many unrecognized mothers of space exploration who allowed us to reach such an incredible height.

Sources and Further Reading:

Caroline Herschel:

Margaret Hamilton:

The Computers of WWII:

The Computers of Harvard and NASA:

Ada Lovelace:

The Perseverance Team:

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