The breakout movie Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA. The story sheds light on the significant contributions of the three women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—but also the broader impact that women had behind the scenes at NASA.
Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson all began their careers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)—which later became NASA—working as “computers.” Computers were not what we think of them today. They were people, primarily women, who reduced or analyzed data using mechanical calculators—we’ve previously explored the role of computers in astronomy.
A few years after graduating from Earlham College with a BA in Mathematics, Margaret Hamilton soon found herself in charge of software development and production for the Apollo missions to the Moon at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Her work was critical to the success of the six voyages to the Moon between 1969 and 1972. In a male-dominated field, Hamilton became known as the “Rope Mother,” which was an apt description for her role and referred to the unusual way that computer programs were stored on the Apollo Guidance Computers.
As the Apollo program took form in the early 1960s, NASA engineers always kept the safety of their astronauts at the fore in light of the enormous risks they knew were inherent in the goal of landing on the Moon and returning safely. Wherever possible, they designed backup systems so that if a primary system failed the crew would still have the means to return home safely. Sometimes creating a backup was not always practical. For example, the Service Module’s engine needed to fire while the crew was behind the Moon to place them in a trajectory that would return them to Earth. There was no practical backup if the engine failed. But even in that instance a plan was worked out to use the Lunar Module’s (LM) engine as a backup. D
Well, not exactly, but that is the nickname some have given to the RQ-16 T-Hawk (short for Tarantula Hawk, a wasp that preys on the large spiders). The T-Hawk micro air vehicle (MAV) is a small unmanned aircraft that has been making a name for itself in both military and civilian circles since it was developed by Honeywell International Corporation starting in 2003. Weighing only about 20 pounds, the T-hawk relies on a small gasoline-powered engine (like a lawn-mower) and a ducted fan to allow it to take off and land vertically (like a helicopter), fly up to 46 miles per hour for about 50 minutes, and reach heights of 10,000 feet!