Hidden Figures

The release of two widely publicized books on female computers in the early Space Age in the same year (one of them with a forthcoming movie adaptation too) has to be unprecedented. The first was Rise of the Rocket Girls, about the women who worked as human computers (a redundant term before the 1950s) for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The second, Hidden Figures, is about the African-American women among those who did similar work for the Langley research center in Virginia. (There’s even a third book, by Dava Sobel, that covers an earlier generation of computers who worked at the Harvard Observatory).

Both Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures are fascinating accounts of the essential roles that female computers played in aerospace research, capturing the challenging social milieu in which they worked. Hidden Figures also manages to address the impact of segregation and discrimination in the overlapping local, regional, and national contexts surrounding the work of the computers at Langley (itself a segregated workplace). It’s a story well worth reading, before or after the movie adaptation – focusing on Katherine Johnson’s contribution to the calculations for the first orbital Mercury flight – goes into wide release in January. The trailers I’ve seen look good, though Kevin Costner as a fictional NASA manager gets to strike a literal blow (with a fire axe!) against racism that goes way beyond anything NASA management actually did for their African-American staff.

In the last chapter of Hidden Figures, Shetterly discusses having to cut the section of the book about how several of its key figures moved into human resources and advocacy to try and overcome the less obvious discrimination against women and minorities in the workforce that was still going on in the 1970s and 80s. You never know from a trailer, but I suspect the movie’s not going to end with the uphill battle for recognition and equal treatment that persisted even after Johnson’s work.

As Sobel’s made clear in some of her pre-publication publicity, the stories of female computers are less undiscovered than regularly and distressingly forgotten. The women who worked in the Harvard Observatory were well known at the time; Katherine Johnson received substantial publicity at least within the African-American press for her work on Mercury. Academic writing, including a book with Princeton University Press, has covered the work of female computers in various fora. Perhaps a major Hollywood movie will help the story stick this time.

The Last of the Computers

One of the first hires at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, before JPL became a NASA facility and even before it had the name JPL, was Barbara Canright. Canright was employed as a “computer” who would do complicated and repetitive mathematics for JPL’s engineers, as were many women who followed in her footsteps at JPL.

From the nineteenth century until the 1960s, many large-scale scientific and engineering project relied on human computers – often female university graduates without the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts – to handle the computational load. As Nathalia Holt explains in her recent book Rise of the Rocket Girls, JPL was no different. Holt’s book describes the careers of computers at JPL from the 1940s to the present: one of the last computers to be hired, Susan Finley, still works at the laboratory.

The book does an excellent job narrating the personal trials and professional triumphs of these women, including the disappearance of computing by hand. By the time JPL acquired its name in 1943, multi-purpose electronic computers were only a matter of years away. In the 1950s, JPL’s computing department acquired the first of many IBM mainframes to do calculation work. “Cora” (for Core Storage) was given a woman’s name to fit into the all-female group. Many of the women who worked with it soon branched out into programming in FORTRAN and other languages, at a time when programming had little or none of the prestige which it would later acquire. That decision helped them carve out a niche which survived when hand calculation was eliminated as a trade by the electronic computers, leading to the computer department being renamed Mission Design and the women who had worked there eventually retitled as engineers. Rise of the Rocket Girls describes their ongoing contributions to a list of JPL space probes that includes Ranger, Mariner, Viking, and Voyager.

It’s an interesting story not least because the female calculators employed at JPL were among the last in the business. Their success in transitioning into the Computer Age, reflected both in their success as individuals and in the establishment of Mission Design, was loaded with assumptions about how the aerospace industry valued various kinds of work. Though Holt doesn’t linger on them, in a lot of ways the undercurrents in Rise of the Rocket Girls reminded me of Rebecca Slayton’s Arguments that Count, which examined the relative influence of physicists and computer scientists in planning for ballistic missile defense during the same era.


A Curious Path for Guidance Technology: MEMS and the Military

At the end of my blog post about laser gryoscopes, I mentioned that pretty much every smartphone now has microelectromechanical (MEMS) gryoscopes or accelerometers inside its case, and that too was development funded by the US Department of Defense. It was pretty much a throwaway observation about I which knew nothing more, so it was very neat to see a whole chapter on government funding for MEMS in a new book from NASA, Historical Studies in the Societal Impact of Spaceflight.

As the chapter’s author, Andrew J. Butrica, explains, a lot of the early research into MEMS was done at and around Stanford University and its Integrated Circuits Laboratory in the 70s. One of the lab’s partners and funders was NASA’s Ames Research Center, whose interest was mainly in the opportunities to use MEMS instruments in biomedical research. Another was the National Institutes of Health, also interested in medical research, which put more than a million dollars a year into the Integrated Circuits lab. A third, and one who had been funding electronics research at Stanford since the 1940s, was the military’s Joint Services Electronics Program. The first MEMS accelerometer, described in a 1977 dissertation by Stanford electrical engineering student Lynn Michael Roylance, was funded for its first two years of development by the Joint Services Electronics Program and in part thereafter by a NASA grant.

What happened next would have seemed really weird if I didn’t already know about the winding path towards military use that the laser gyroscope took. One of the earliest widespread adopters of MEMS sensors was the automotive industry, which used MEMS pressure sensors to measure the air pressure in engine manifolds, MEMS accelerometers to trigger airbags in case of sudden deceleration, and MEMS gyroscopes to guide anti-skid and rollover detection systems. Automobile manufacturers liked MEMS sensors for their small size and reliability, which also made them good for use in guided munitions. Starting in 1990 or so, when the global market for MEMS devices had grown to $480 million (according to the March 1, 1993 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology), development came full circle and MEMS sensors started turning up in weapons. A quartz tuning fork gyro was integrated into the Maverick anti-tank missile in 1990, while in 1995–6 automotive-grade MEMS components were used to build a prototype guided shell, the Extended-Range Guided Munition (ERGM), for the US Navy.

Interestingly, the sensors in the ERGM were built by Draper Labs, better known for designing extremely precise gryos and accelerometers for use in intercontinental ballistic missiles, who had used an initial government-funded investment in MEMS development to enter the automotive MEMS sensor market. (There’s a lot of good information on those developments, much of it written by Draper Labs staff, in this NATO paper collection.)

Obviously, the use of MEMS in cars and commercial electronics (like the Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone) were not the only factor in continuing development. From 1992 on, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invested in MEMS research through its Microsystems Technology Office. So did national labs like Sandia, and presumably many others – I’m sure I still only know a small slice of what was going on with MEMS in these years. Still, it’s interesting to see another case of what still strikes me as surprising – development coming full circle from speculative military research through commercialization to practical military use.

Spacesuit Style

Gizmodo is reporting that SpaceX has hired costume designer Jose Fernandez, whose work appears in Batman v Superman, Tron: Legacy, The Avengers, Iron Man, and other movies, to design the spacesuits to be used in non-NASA launches aboard the company’s Dragon capsule.

It might be better to say that Fernandez will be styling the suits, since spacesuit design is a pretty technical area. Reportedly, the plan is to begin with a concept design and then engineer it to work from there. It’s a logical move from a company that’s shown a demonstrable love for science fiction (naming its landing barges after spaceships from Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels) and flair for good PR.

SpaceX’s suits will probably go into service along side those used by NASA, who have always been aware of the need for space suit style. As Nicholas de Monchaux explains in his fabulous book Fashioning Apollo, NASA sexed-up its earliest pressure suits – which were essential US Navy pilot’s gear – by adding a layer of silver to make them seem more futuristic. More recently, its experimental Z-series suits have revealed their own touches of fashion. The Z-1, for example, is often nicknamed the “Buzz Lightyear Suit” because of its green striping. For the Z-2, introduced a few years later, NASA commissioned students three different designs from Philadelphia University fashion students and offered the public the change to vote for their favourite: the winner? The Tron-esque “Technology” option.

NASA’s engineers are aware of the demand for cool, Science-Fictional suits, and appreciative of the chance to make some aesthetic tweaks to what’s otherwise a practical design. Talking to io9 last year, suit designer Amy Ross explained:

We’re engineers, and this is space hardware. So a game I used to play with my mentor is “Why is this feature on the suit?” Because this is a very highly engineered product. If there’s a feature there, it’s there for a reason, not just because it looks cool. As fun as that would be, we don’t get that luxury very often.

So with Z1 and Z2, we’ve been given that freedom to think a little bit about what it looks like, and it’s been a lot of fun because spacesuits are cool. We all grew up with these movies too. Hollywood has some really neat things going on and with commercial space coming up, everybody wants to look cool as an astronaut. We don’t usually get to do that but with Z1 and Z2 we really had the opportunity to think a little more about what it’s going to look like.

Both the Z-1 and Z-2 look a lot bulkier than preliminary images of the SpaceX suit I’ve seen because what SpaceX is creating is only a “pressure suit,” designed to be worn inside the pressurized capsule, not a “space suit” that will be exposed to the rigors of extravehicular activity or a moon- or mars-walk. In fact, though suits like the A7L used on Apollo were custom-designed masterpieces, the pressure suits used by Space Shuttle crews over the subsequent thirty years were quick conversions of existing suits.

Until the Challenger disaster in 1986, Shuttle crews flew without pressure suits at all. The Launch Entry Suit that was issued after the accident was a modified version of a existing design by the David Clark Company used by NASA’s Dryden Research Center, combined with a nonconformal helmet that had been tested by the US Air Force for U-2 pilots. When the Air Force introduced a new pressure suit for test pilots, NASA adopted that as its Advanced Crew Escape Suit (details of both can be found in a NASA-sponsored history of US pressure suits, Dressing for Altitude).

Given that one of the early instructions was to look “badass,” we can assume that SpaceX will adopt something sleeker, more form-fitting, and a lot cooler looking. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what they choose.

Aerospace History on the Web

In a very exciting move, Aviation Week and Space Technology has put its entire magazine archive from 1916 to 2016 online (h/t the latest NASA history newsletter). It’s free for now, courtesy of Boeing, although you do have to register. The interface is pretty slick, considerably more so than Flight magazine’s archive, but unlike Flight none of the pages can be downloaded and the content doesn’t come with an encouragement to “link to, copy and paste from, and contribute to the development of this unique record of aerospace and aviation history.” Still, it’s a very cool resource while it lasts.

In the meantime, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast has a nice two-part interview about the Women Airforce Service Pilots during the Second World War.

The Space Review has a review of Rise of the Rocket Girls, which looks like a fascinating book about the women who worked as human “computers,” doing repetitive calculations for NASA in its early years. The story of computers,” one of very few opportunities for women with educations in mathematics at the time isn’t a new one: David Alan Grier’s When Computers Were Human is about a decade old, but this looks like a valuable addition to the story. It looks like we’re also going to get both a book, Hidden Figures, and a movie about the first African-American women who worked as NASA computers.

NASA’s Graphics Standards Guide is Back

I’m not sure whether it was the Kickstarter to do an high-quality reprint of the 1976 NASA Graphics Standards Guide or the publication of the agency’s own history book Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has put up a PDF of the classic guide on its website.

I don’t want to get into the middle of the fight over whether “the meatball” or “the worm” is the better NASA emblem, aside from noting that both seem far better to me than the official seal with its mustard yellow planet. There’s a lot more the guide than just the introduction of the NASA logotype (“the worm”).

ThNASA_GSDp41e Graphics Standards Guide includes guidance for typography (use Helvetica, Future, Garamond, or Times New Roman), publication layouts, signage, and vehicle markings. That includes instructions on how to paint a Grumman Gulfstream airplane (“The windows determine the width and placement of the blue stripe. Fuselage markings align with the top edge of the windows”) or a Lockeed F-106 (“The bottom of the blue stripe aligns with the leading edge of the wings. Fuselage markings are flush left with the tail markings”). The two pages of spacecraft markings are more informational than practical, one expects.NASA_GSDp54NASA_GSDp56

The Latest in NASA History

The most recent quarterly newsletter from the NASA History Office shows how much exciting work is being done by NASA’s historians and archivists. The newsletter has links to many of these new resources, including two very nice websites by the Glenn Research Centers on the aircraft it operated in the 1940s and 50s and the Inspections (essentially industry days) that the center held until 1973).