Tech History

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan – Black History Month

I would be a-missed if I went this month without talking about another wonderful lady from NASA and the real person behind Octavia Spencer’s character in Hidden Figures! Dorothy Johnson Vaughan worked as a NASA mathematician on the SCOUT Launch Vehicle Program that launched America’s first satellites into space.


Vaughan would come to receive a full-tuition scholarship and graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from Wilberforce University, a historically black college and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Although encouraged by professors to do graduate study at Howard University, Vaughan soon started working as a teacher (still segregated by Jim Crow laws) as to support her family during the Great Depression.


In 1943, Vaughan began what developed as a 28-year-career as a mathematician and programmer at Langley Research Center. She specialized in calculations for flight paths.

In her career, President Franklin D Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 8802, to desegregate the defense industry, and Executive Order 9346 to end racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and promotion among federal agencies and defense contractors, which would ramp up the needs for women to support war production of airplanes while men were in service.

Just as seen in the pop culture movie Hidden Figures, Vaughan started to work at NACA in 1935, with established a section of women mathematicians in the West Area Computers, who made complex mathematical calculations by hand, using tools of the time.

In 1949, Vaughan was assigned as the acting head of the West Area Computers, taking over from a white woman who had died. She was the first Black supervisor at NACA and one of few female supervisors. She served for years in an acting role before being promoted officially to the position as supervisor. Vaughan worked for opportunities for the women in West Computing as well as women in other departments.

When Vaughan moved to the electronic computing department in 1961, Vaughan became proficient in computer programming, teaching herself FORTRAN and teaching it to her coworkers to prepare them for the transition. She contributed to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program, or known as the Scout project. She would work on training mathematicians programming languages and other concepts through the 1960s. She later became part of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). She worked at NASA-Langley for a total of twenty-eight years.

Later Years

Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971, at the age of 60. She was survived by four children, ten grandchildren and fourteen great grandchildren.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.