Human Computers and the Crew

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Ranger spacecraft from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Courtesy of University of Southern California. Libraries.

The great accomplishments of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) programs were the culmination of many smaller operations behind the scenes. The teams at NASA, including crewmembers and mathematicians, were invaluable assets and played a major role in the success of the space programs.

Each spacecraft required mission crews, helping guide the flight back on Earth. While they never left the planet, these crewmembers made it possible for early spacecraft to, among other operations, procure photographs of space and function safely during flight. A notable member of the mission crew for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions was Guenter Wendt, the pad leader who oversaw flight safety. Wendt was primarily responsible for spacecraft tests, checkouts, and launch operations—he was the mission crewmember that saw the astronauts off before liftoff.

During the space programs, a significant number of women worked in professional positions at NASA. Referred to as “human computers,” they performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. “Have the girl run the numbers,” John Glenn requested from space. These women did more than just computations and reciting numbers, though. Many, like Sharon Stack and Katherine Johnson, were professionals who published scholarly articles during a time when it was very rare for women to do so. However, there were still many institutional barriers for women interested in other jobs at NASA—especially as astronauts. The first training class of women astronauts were selected by NASA in 1978, Sally Ride among them. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that Ride became the first woman astronaut sent to space, and almost another decade later before an African American woman, Mae Jemison, made it to space.