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8 Facts You Didn't Know about the 3 Black Women Behind NASA’s First Earth Orbit

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

February 20th, 2022 will be the 60th Anniversary of America's first orbit around the earth! Learn more about the women who helped make it happen along with writing prompts, video and articles that make it easy to incorporate Black History Month into your lessons.

The film Hidden Figures (2017) is based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three women who played a major role in the first orbit around Earth and paved the way for African American Women in STEM.

In 1962, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson were computing at NASA as part of the “West Area Computing Unit”, which was a segregated group of African American computing women. Being separated from their white counterparts, they truly were hidden from the spotlight. However, their brilliance in computing aeronautic data and their importance in the Space Race era, was something that could never be hidden away!

To celebrate, here are 8 Facts You Didn't Know about the 3 Black Women Behind NASA’s First Earth Orbit:

1. Katherine Johnson grew up in Greenbrier, WV, where they didn’t offer public schooling for African American students past the 8th grade! Johnson’s family enrolled their daughter to the campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC) for high school, at the age of 10!

2. Dorothy Vaughan became the FIRST African American female supervisor in NASA history in 1949, for the West Area Computing Unit.

3. Mary Jackson worked for NASA, before it was named NASA! She was hired in 1951 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA in 1958!

4. There are satellites named after Katherine, Mary and Dorothy and they’re all in space- right now! On November 6, 2020, satellites named after these 3 American women were launched into space, in honor of their work!

5. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was presented the highest civilian honor by President Obama: the Presidential Medal of Freedom

6. Dorothy Vaughan has a crater on the Moon named after her! After posthumously winning the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019, the Vaughan Crater was named in her honor.

7. Mary Jackson was a Girl Scout leader for more than 30 years! As Girl Scout troop leader she is famed for helping young girls at a community center in Hampton, Virginia build their own wind tunnel!

8. Dorothy Vaughan had a 14 year teaching career in mathematics, teaching in the racially segregated Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA, before starting her career at Langley Research Center in 1943.

How can you celebrate the 60th Anniversary of NASA's First Orbit Black History Month Style?

Try these Writing Prompts with your Students:

1. Write about a person, place or event that you believe deserves more spotlight!

2. What dreams do you have for your future? Can you think of a few steps you would need to take to make them a reality?

Space-themed Kikori Activities with your Students:

Star Wars

Be a problem solver like the Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary with Star Wars, a problem solving activity that focuses on critical thinking skills.

Moon Ball

Learn how to work together like Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary with Moon Ball, a team building activity for practicing trial and error, goal setting, and failing forward!

Hidden Figures Read Aloud by Margot Lee Shetterly

Click here for even more interesting facts about NASA's first Orbit to share with your students!


Do you have a favorite activity that celebrates space exploration? Share about it in the comments below!

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Finnegan McGovern
Finnegan McGovern
Feb 10, 2022

I cannot wait to see more work from this content producer. Francesca Barucci will be a big name one day, mark my words!

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