11 Aug People in Space
A recent survey found that 52% of Brits think the Moon landings from 1969–72 were faked, with 73% of 25–34 year olds thinking it was all a hoax. In his essay, ‘Apollo Moon Landings: Pseudoscience and 6 Reasons Why There Was No NASA Hoax’, Barry Vacker draws attention to the questions being raised around this, ‘It happens every year. One or more students ask me if I think the Apollo moon landings were a hoax’. More people want to know more about the moon, even if those questions surrounding the moon are sparked by doubt.
Responding to a Tweet from This Morning about this overwhelming statistic, Dr Lucie Green posted a now widely shared Tweet voicing how important it is for those who worked on the Apollo programme, and those who still work on human space flight to be recognised and acknowledged.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Image courtesy of NASA
Rather than spending energy denying the moon landing, it feels pertinent to delve deeper into the untold stories behind lunar tech and innovation.And so I took Dr Green’s challenge and tried to sift through the piles of pseudoscience out there to learn more about the team behind the Apollo program.
When thinking about this my immediate point of reference is the African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Their achievements were made better known through Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. This book became the popular film Hidden Figures (2016). Called into service during the labour deficits of World War II, these women joined Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory and became known as “human computers”. This nickname came from their math wizardry, as the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the digits that would later launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. One of the things I find most remarkable about the Hidden Figures story is the sheer skill behind the mathematics deployed by this women in the face of a work climate that was built to stymie them every step of the way.
Let me give you an example. Katherine Johnson did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight,the launching of the Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) rocket on astronaut Alan B. Shepard’s Freedom 7 suborbital mission.. Together with her team she mapped out in intricate detail the path that Freedom 7 would take, from lift-off to splashdown. And her name is not on the Wikipedia page for the MR-3 launch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury-Redstone_3.
But not only that, Johnson’s role in America’s first ever instance of human spaceflight is left out of the Hidden Figures movie too. Her work with the MR-3 launch was nowhere near as complicated as that with America’s first orbital mission, but it is increasingly evident that the teams working behind the scenes on these mammoth space programmes are rarely depicted in their full glory.