Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Out of the Past, the Future – Summary

In Chapter 21, the book discusses the challenges of sending a man into space and bringing him back safely. The Mercury capsule had to withstand extreme pressure and be tested for every possible failure. The Atlas rocket used to propel the capsule had a high risk of failure, and the slightest mistake in calculations could have catastrophic consequences.

Astronaut John Glenn was selected for the first orbital flight, and he worked hard to prepare for every possible scenario. The engineers tried to balance the need to get into space quickly with the risk that they could ask their astronauts to accept. The first orbital flight was originally scheduled for 1960, but it was delayed multiple times due to testing and improvements. Finally, it was rescheduled for 1962.

John Glenn was cautious about relying solely on computers for his spaceflight, as he and other pilots were used to having direct control over their planes. They worried about the possibility of technical failures or errors, which could have disastrous consequences. However, Glenn did trust the engineers and mathematicians who controlled the computers, and in particular, he trusted Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician who was crucial to the success of the Mercury missions. Glenn’s trust in Johnson was conveyed to others through a chain of communication, ultimately reaching the intended recipient.

In the 1960s, the US was experiencing both the space age and the rise of television, and NASA wanted to make sure that they created a story that would capture people’s imaginations. They documented every step of the astronaut’s journey, including behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, to make a documentary. The agency also sent film crews to the remote tracking stations to record the communications teams as they did their preflight checkouts.

However, behind the scenes, black employees were working just as hard as their white counterparts, doing calculations, running simulations, and writing reports. These employees, including scientists like Dudley McConnell and Annie Easley, worked on important projects like developing a rocket stage and tackling the challenge of aerodynamic heating during reentry. Melba Roy, a graduate from Howard University, oversaw a group of programmers working on trajectories at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, which was responsible for tracking the spaceship and relaying information to Mission Control.

The chapter explores the professional trajectories of several female employees who were part of NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1950s and 1960s. Among them, Dorothy Hoover, a mathematician, relocated to Goddard and pursued her work in theoretical physics.

The Langley engineers contributed to various initiatives, including the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel and the Saturn rocket, in order to accomplish President Kennedy’s objective of reaching the moon. Although the West Computing team, composed of black female mathematicians, was dissolved, its members remained employed at NASA in different departments. Katherine Johnson, who was previously associated with the group, was responsible for computing trajectories for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962.

Katherine Johnson worked on the Space Task Group’s IBM computers to program the trajectory equations and other programs necessary to control the rocket and capsule, compare the flight’s vital signs to the plan, and communicate with Mission Control. During the mission, the computer established a communication link with ground stations and sent real-time information on the spaceship’s position to Mission Control. Katherine Johnson’s work was important for the success of the mission, which required everything to function correctly, and she was meticulous in ensuring her calculations matched the computer’s output. She worked for a day and a half to come up with the numbers needed for an eight-digit output variable for the three-orbit mission.

On February 20, a rocket named Friendship 7 was launched with astronaut John Glenn on board. During the first orbit, the automatic control system started to act up, causing the capsule to pull back and forth. Glenn fixed it by switching to manual control. At the end of the second orbit, the heat shield was loose. To keep it in place, Glenn was instructed to keep the rocket pack attached to the craft. The re-entry went smoothly, and Glenn splashed down, only off by 40 miles. He became a national hero, with a parade in New York, a visit to the president, and a ticker-tape parade. In Hampton Roads, a parade was held in his honor. People also began to learn about Katherine Johnson’s role in Glenn’s successful mission.



Who is the astronaut chosen by NASA for manned space flight?

The astronaut chosen by NASA for a manned space flight was John Glenn. He was selected for the orbital flight known as MA-6. Glenn was a former Marine test pilot and had campaigned to be the first of the Mercury Seven to navigate to space but was unsuccessful. He worked hard to prepare for his space mission, running miles each day to stay fit and practicing water egress with fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter. NASA physicians were less worried about Glenn’s health because he would be hooked up to wires like a lab rat, and his every vital sign would be transmitted and monitored by doctors on the ground. Despite this, Glenn worked obsessively in simulators and procedures trainers to prepare for any failure scenarios.


How is the Soviet Union still pulling ahead in the space race?

In 1961, while NASA faced technical and weather-related issues that caused delays, Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov made a successful seventeen-orbit flight in space for almost a whole day following Yuri Gagarin’s achievement. This disappointed American government officials, the press, and the public, who criticized NASA’s competency.

Even though NASA managed to resolve some technical problems, the launch team still had to deal with weather issues at Cape Canaveral, leading to further delays. John Glenn eventually made his debut flight on February 20, 1962, but the Soviet Union was still ahead in the space race.


How does Katherine Johnson’s role change as we get closer to Glenn’s flight? What kinds of work is she now doing?

As the first orbital flight was rescheduled for 1962, Katherine Johnson continued to work hard as a mathematician at NASA. She worked on the Space Task Group’s IBM computers to program trajectory equations and other programs needed to control the rocket and capsule. She compared the flight’s vital signs to the plan and communicated with Mission Control. Her work was important for the success of the mission, and she was meticulous in ensuring her calculations matched the computer’s output.


Who were the other West Computers that played a part in Glenn’s flight? How did they play a part in it?

Other than Katherine Johnson, there were other African American women known as the West Computers who played a crucial role in Glenn’s flight. These women were employees at NASA centers, and they worked alongside their white counterparts to calculate numbers, run simulations, and write reports. They were just as interested in space travel and were determined to find answers to their inquiries.

For example, Dudley McConnell, a black scientist at the Lewis Research Center in Ohio, was among the researchers working on aerodynamic heating, while Annie Easley worked on Project Centaur, developing a rocket stage used in the Atlas. Additionally, Melba Roy oversaw a section of programmers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she was in charge of working on trajectories for the mission.


What was Glenn’s experience in Friendship 7? Do you consider the mission successful?

John Glenn was the astronaut who flew Friendship 7 into orbit on February 20. The flight was watched by an unprecedented audience of 135 million people on live television. Glenn’s mission faced some challenges, such as the capsule’s automatic control system acting up during the first orbit and an indicator suggesting that the all-important heat shield was loose. The ground controllers cleared Glenn for seven orbits, but at the end of the third orbit, after the retrorockets were to be fired, Glenn was to keep the rocket pack attached to the craft rather than jettisoning it as was standard procedure. At four hours and thirty-three minutes into the flight, the retrorockets fired. Victory was nearly in hand! When he finally splashed down, he was off by forty miles, only because of an incorrect estimate in the capsule’s reentry weight. Otherwise, both computers, electronic and human, had performed like a dream. In conclusion, Glenn’s experience in Friendship 7 was a success.


What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘Out of the Past, the Future’?

The chapter “Out of the Past, the Future” delves into how NASA overcame obstacles in sending a man into space and highlights the pivotal contributions of female mathematicians and engineers, among others, to the success of the Mercury missions. The title implies that the past events influenced the future of space exploration and NASA learned from history to shape its future.

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