The Role of Human Computers in the Development of Spaceflight

TLDR Before the advent of machines, human computers, many of whom were women, played a crucial role in the development of spaceflight, performing complex calculations for tasks such as weather forecasting, astronomical calculations, and engineering. Their contributions were instrumental in the early days of NASA and continued until the late 60s and 70s when computers became powerful enough to replace them.

Timestamped Summary

00:00 Before computers were machines, the word "computer" referred to people who computed, and in the early days of NASA, human computers, many of whom were women, played a crucial role in the development of spaceflight.
01:59 In the late 19th century, women became sought after as human computers due to the physically undemanding nature of the job and lower wages, allowing for more computing power for the same amount of money, and they were used extensively in weather forecasting and astronomical calculations, as well as other engineering calculations, and during World War I, women were responsible for calculating artillery and navigational charts.
03:39 The use of human computers involved breaking down tasks into algorithms, assigning calculations to different groups for redundancy, and was eventually replaced by machine computing due to its slow and tedious nature; the story of human computers at NASA began with the establishment of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1930s, where women like Barbara Canwright were tasked with complex computations such as the rocket equation, and during World War II, JPL's computer program expanded with an all-female department led by Macy Roberts, while the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia also utilized human computers.
05:28 During World War II, the Langley facility hired African-American women as computers, who had to work in a separate building and use different facilities due to Jim Crow laws; after the war, the program was integrated and the women's contributions were recognized through terms like "kilo-girl" and "girl year" to measure computing power, and in the 1950s, the need for human computers increased with the start of the US space program.
07:10 The early engineers at NASA preferred human calculations over electronic computers, leading to the first computer programmers being the women who were human computers themselves, and these women had unique benefits and played a crucial role in calculating orbital trajectories for important space missions.
08:47 Katherine Johnson, one of the top computers at NASA, calculated trajectories for important space missions, including Alan Shepard's first human space flight and verifying calculations for John Glenn's orbit of the Earth, and she continued to play a crucial role in the Apollo missions, while Sue Finley, another computer at NASA, still works at JPL today as an engineer on NASA's Deep Space Network.
10:32 Computers became powerful and cheap enough in the late 60s and 70s that humans were no longer needed for complex mathematical calculations, but for about a hundred years, teams of human computers, mostly women, played a crucial role in fields such as engineering, astronomy, and navigation.
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