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Human Computers - The Story of Hidden Figures and NASA

Lisa Richards, Educational Outreach Writer

Recently the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the first landing of astronauts on the Moon. The visit to the Moon also saw exploration of the surface, and Neil Armstrong taking the first steps by an American on the Moon. The "one small step" that was taken that day, was watched, and heard by millions of people, that were amazed that we could put a person on the Moon. But, how NASA got to that point was not as easy as it seems, with many bumps along the road to space. Fortunately, the work of human computers helped with the calculations needed to leave the Earth's atmosphere and to orbit the planet.

We are used to having computers and technology is our everyday life, both at home and at work. We use computers for fun, information, entertainment, and financial uses. Modern computers and technology have become an integral part of our life, and we can't imagine a time when we didn't have access to computers. But, it wasn't that long ago that we didn't have computers to help us, and all calculations needed to be done manually. That's where human computers came in.

So, what is a human computer? The term computer comes from the 17th Century, and it means one that computes. In modern days, it refers to the technology employed by artificial means. However, prior to that humans completed the functions. Human computing generally required mathematical skills to compute equations and formulas to get the correct answer.

In the early 1960's their was a race to become the first country in space between Russia and the United States. The earliest attempts by the Russians to get a person into space were successful, while the Americans were having problems leaving the atmosphere and getting into orbit. The calculations that were needed to gain the correct speed and angle to safely takeoff and land. In order to accomplish this, NASA began to employ human computers, who were mathematicians who had the job of tackling these problems. Most of these computers were African-American women, who had a huge effect in changing the world.

In 2016, a motion picture called "Hidden Figures" was released. This movie chronicled the work that these women did in solving the mathematical equations needed to allow John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. The work at the hands of these women were better than the work that a mechanical computer systems were able to perform, and were the equal to todays software operations. The women at NASA working on this project found the hidden figures that were needed to make this a success.

Since the early days of NASA and the success that they had, the United States space program has continued to evolve and culminated with the landing of the first spaceship on the Moon and becoming the first to walk on the Moon. The work that these women started in the early 60's laid the groundwork of the space program from yesterday, today and tomorrow.