Virginia Tucker and Dorothy Vaughan, who each taught mathematics in North Carolina, found their way to NASA as computers, or employees tasked with completing calculations by hand.
Crystal Harden, the director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, explained it didn’t take much consideration to determine the women’s stories should be featured in Chapel Hill.
“Being that Morehead Planetarium and Science Center trained all the astronauts that went into space on celestial navigation here in Chapel Hill, and we’re a historical landmark for that, we knew that we should be telling the story of these women,” Harden said.
Accidental discovery of an intentional woman
Tucker became one of the first female computers for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA. Born and raised in Hertford, North Carolina, Tucker eventually became supervisor of computing — placing her in charge of hundreds of women by the end of World War II.
Graduating from the North Carolina College for Women, which is now UNC-Greensboro, Tucker was then appointed to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.
Erin Lawrimore, university archivist for UNC-G, said in an email that Tucker’s story was discovered by chance when a volunteer found her story in the Alumni Association’s files.
Tucker served as an advocate for women in the STEM field for the rest of her life, recruiting from colleges all over the South to join the field and managed both the East Area Computers and West Area Computers at Langley, which were segregated according to the race of the women.
The archivist team at UNC-G found a copy of a newspaper article from October 12, 1957, in which Tucker encouraged high school girls to enter the engineering field.
“I find it really fascinating that she was so strongly making this push in 1957 — something that we’re still advocating for today,” Lawrimore said.
‘She was mama to us’
Vaughan made history at NACA as its first African-American female supervisor.
Vaughan, a main character in the “Hidden Figures” film, joined the West Area Computing group and became an expert computer programmer. She saved her own job and those of her female colleagues from being replaced by NASA’s new IBM computers.
Vaughan’s family members came to the planetarium last week to see the new exhibit.
Ann Vaughan Hammond, Vaughan’s daughter, and Heather Vaughan-Batten, Vaughan’s granddaughter, said while they knew Vaughan was a computer for NASA, it wasn’t until the book and movie surfaced that they learned more about her role.
“I understand from the people who worked out there that she was a brilliant lady, but she was Mama to us,” Hammond said.
After graduating from Wilberforce University, Vaughan taught in Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia.
“In our family circle, her impact was always great because we all understood that education was important, we all understood that we were going to go to college and we all have a yearning for learning,” Vaughan-Batten said.
Hammond said all of Vaughan’s children and grandchildren graduated with one or more college degrees, following her example and request that they would attend college, even if it was only for a year.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Harden said she hopes the planetarium’s exhibit will inspire young girls to move past racial and gender disparities in the field.
“I think it is critical that these stories are no longer hidden and are very much seen by everyone,” Harden said.
The purpose of the “Hidden Figures” book and movie was to give children inspiration to achieve anything they want, Hammond said.
“My mother would want these children to be inspired by what she and those ladies did, and there are a lot of those hidden figures out there that people don’t know about,” she said. “Our society is based on the male roles, so women have to just get on out there and show the world what they can do. And they are — they’ve broken that ceiling, but I’m sure things are going to be a lot better.”
Vaughan-Batten said her grandmother’s impact has always taught her how to be fearless.
“She made me realize that, literally, no pun intended, the sky’s the limit, that there are no limitations. So I never went to a situation thinking, oh, I’m a woman, I’m a minority; I’m not good enough,” Vaughan-Batten said. “I always knew I was good enough, and I got that from her — that courage, that inner courage.”