The human computers group photo in 1953. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

They were known as “human computers” long before desktop, laptops and multi-function calculators. Comprising an elite team of mathematicians, engineers and scientists, these women were tasked with turning numbers into meaningful data at what would later become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Langley Research Center. Their calculations would chart the course of many ground-breaking missions, carrying U.S. astronauts to the moon and beyond.

Photo above: Macie Roberts’ computing group circa 1955 (far right). Barbara Paulson is on the telephone (standing, back left). Helen Ling is at the second desk in the left row. (Credit: JPL)

Barbara “Barby” Canright was the first and joined California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1939. As the first female “human computer,” her job was to calculate anything from how many rockets were needed to make a plane airborne to what kind of rocket propellants were needed to propel a spacecraft.

Mary Jackson

These calculations were done by hand, with pencil and graph paper, often taking more than a week to complete and filling up six to eight notebooks with data and formulas.

It was the careful and precise hand-made calculations of these women that sent Voyager to explore the solar system, wrote the C and C++ programs that launched the first Mars rover and helped the U.S. put a man on the moon. Though rarely seen in the famous photos of NASA’s mission control, these early human computers contributed immeasurably to the success of the United States’ space program. Read More

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