July Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille
When she was in the fourth grade, JoAnn Morgan's favorite birthday gift was a chemistry set from her dad. After she blew up the patio, all JoAnn's dad wanted to know was, "How did you do that?"
The girl learned her science lessons well and became an engineer and instrumentation controller for the Apollo 11 mission. Morgan was the only "girl" allowed in the Kennedy Space Center's firing room to watch Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon and announce "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." JoAnn Morgan was just one of many women who made that moon landing possible for humankind.
On July 20,1969, Morgan and all the men in the room held their breaths as, just three minutes before landing, an alarm went off, signaling to abort the landing. The computer (which had little memory compared with today's computers) was on overload. Thanks to the computer software's design, the spacecraft's computer was able to override all other functions. With seconds remaining before the lunar module ran out of fuel, Neil Armstrong announced, "The Eagle has landed."
The Eagle's computer software designer, Margaret Hamilton, watched the landing and communicated with mission control from her office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she directed software technology. Hamilton's work in software engineering, a term she originated, went on to be used in the remaining Apollo missions as well as the first U.S. space station. Hamilton, known for her fearlessness, became the Kennedy Space Center's first woman senior executive, started two companies of her own, and received NASA's Exceptional Space Act Award in 2003. President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom award to Margaret Hamilton in 2016.
Women have played critical roles in aeronautics and space exploration since 1943, before the 1958 beginning of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Their path has not been easy, marked by discrimination, threats, lack of access to bathrooms, and delay. Moreover, the Eisenhower-era requirement that astronauts be career military pilots excluded women since only men could train as military pilots. Although a number of women passed all the other requirements for selection as astronauts, they couldn't pass the gender requirement to be military pilots, which was not dropped until 1993.
In 1978, NASA selected the first class of astronauts to train for the Space Shuttle program as mission specialists who did not have to be career military pilots. That class included Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was the third woman in space following Soviets Valentina Tereshkova in 1962 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.
"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space," Ride remembered, "carried huge expectations with it." She knew what many path breaking women know: that if she made a mistake, that's all that would be remembered about her historic ride into space.
The book Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and the movie that followed, featured the team of women called "computers" or "computeresses" (rather than the mathematicians they were) who made space flight possible. Katherine Johnson, the most recognized of these women, calculated orbital equations that ultimately led to John Glenn's 1958 flight into space. A building on the campus of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia now bears Katherine Johnson's name, and the street in front of NASA headquarters is now "Hidden Figures Way."
At least one woman's computer savvy was evident in the 19th Century. Ada Byron King, Countess of Loveless, better known now as Ada Loveless (1815-1852), grew up steeped in math and science. It was Ada's mother, mathematician Annabella Milbank Byron, who believed that rigorous study rooted in reason and logic would save her daughter from following in the footsteps of Ada's abusive and erratic father, the poet Lord Byron.
Ada Loveless became a protegé of Charles Babbage, "father of the computer," who shared with Loveless the workings of his "difference machine." Her prolific writing and analysis went beyond Babbage's numerical calculations to foresee computer operations translated to digital forms of language, music, text, pictures, and symbols. The computer language called Ada, used today by the U.S. Department of Defense, honors the woman now considered the first computer programmer and "prophet of the computer age." Ada Loveless, unrecognized for her work in her brief lifetime, could not have imagined that her groundbreaking insights would contribute to laying the foundation for women and men to reach for the moon and beyond.
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