NASA Pioneer Christine Darden Speaks About Her Career Span

The film “Hidden Figures” recounts the true story of a group African-American women employed to calculate numbers like human computers in the pre-computer age. Their calculations helped launch rockets and astronauts into space for NASA.

While the movie focused on three women, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson; a fourth woman, Christine Darden, Ph.D., was not depicted in the movie but is portrayed in the book. Darden worked with the three women depicted in the movie and continues to stay in touch with them.
Darden visited the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field on Sept. 18 to speak to the museum’s Women’s Network.

“I spent about 25 years of my career in sonic boom minimization, and they had just passed a law for no commercial supersonic flight over the continental United States when I started working,” Darden said. “I was given a technical paper that a couple of professors at Cornell had worked on about their ideas on how maybe to minimize that. I took their paper and generated a computer program [using FORTRAN] to do what they were saying. Once we got that code running, it would output an equivalent area distribution, which was supposed to be, if your airplane matched that, it would minimize the sonic boom.

“We started designing airplanes and iterating, because we would just design a wing or a fuselage, calculate the area and compare it to where we were trying to get and then decide well, where do I change this to make it match? Once we got close to the target area, we had the model built and then put it in the wind tunnel and tested it.

“However, when the SST (Super Sonic Transport) program went away, so did the money for research. After 6 or 7 years, the money came back in order to do some research regarding environmental concerns, and sonic boom was one of the environmental concerns.”

Darden called people and companies in the aircraft design industry from around the country, visited universities and invited people to meet at Langley, Virginia, for two to three days to discuss the issues and potential solutions for sonic boom minimization. They reviewed materials and other designs that were being considered. From those meetings, certain critical design factors were discussed and others suggested for further research, such as what happens to the signal created by the aircraft as it is transmitted from 50,000 feet, does humidity impact the signal, and how are people going to respond to the signals.

Ultimately, the U. S. program was cancelled in 1971. The English and the French went on to build Concorde, and the Russians built the TU-144. Following an accident at an airshow, the Russians only used the TU-144 as a cargo aircraft in Russia.

During her speech, Darden described in some detail and displayed slides explaining the need for physical modifications to aircraft to help minimize sonic booms. She stated Congress has allocated funds to build new airplanes by 2021. Once the new planes are field tested and consumers provide their reactions to the lowered noise levels, the FAA will be approached for approval to introduce them for passenger service. This advancement in the airline industry is something Darden has been looking forward to since 1972.

Darden noted her greatest inspiration growing up was her parents.

“My parents certainly always valued education. It was understood in my house that everyone expected to go to college, and that was the atmosphere in my house,” she said.

Darden offered some advice for students.

“If you start looking at a lot of the jobs that are out there now and what they pay, you’ll see that jobs with the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] foundation [background] typically pay more straight out of college then other jobs,” Darden said. “When you are choosing your majors, you need to know what those jobs pay. You need to know whether those jobs might be going away in a couple of years or if they are in a growing area. You might like something that is going to go away. You can go online and find out a lot of these things. You kind of need to know what’s going on around you.”

As an example, Darden mentioned the possible upcoming loss of jobs held by drivers of all types, since driverless vehicles may be here shortly.

“They [students] should not automatically assume they don’t like math and things like that,” she said. “They might not care that much for it, but I think if you don’t understand something, you will automatically say you don’t like it. I think there are a lot of elementary school teachers who don’t like math, and their attitude is all but conveyed to their students in the classroom.”

When Darden began working in the late sixties, the country was undergoing a great deal of social change.
“I guess I was sort of isolated from some of that,” Darden said. “I was in a totally segregated environment until I got to NASA. There was no segregation when I got there, so I worked in an office with white and black. The segregated computer pools ended when NASA started in 1958. The movie ‘Hidden Figures’ had the timing different. That was set in 1961-62. It portrayed the segregation, but in essence it was not segregated then.”
Darden knew all three women in featured in ‘Hidden Figures.’

“Dorothy Vaughan lived down the street from me,” Darden said. “When I got to NASA, she was the FORTRAN computing expert consultant. She had an office there where anybody having difficulties writing their code could come to Dorothy for consultation. We used to end up with boxes of computer cards, and we would draw a diagonal line on the outside edge of the cards in a box, so that if we dropped the box we might get them back in the right order.”

Darden’s siblings did not have any influence on her love of numbers. Her two sisters were teachers, and two brothers were doctors. She originally wanted to be a doctor.

“When I took biology, I realized that I really enjoyed the physical sciences much better, and I guess the math went along with that. It changed my mind, and I went into the math and physics area,” she said. “I did not finish high school with a lot of math. In our schools in North Carolina, geometry was the highest level. When I took geometry, I really enjoyed that. It may have partly been due to the teacher and realizing the benefit of connecting math and the physical world.”

Cheryl Sutterfield-Jones, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Museum, praised Dr. Darden in brief remarks.
“What a great role model Dr. Darden is for young women,” Sutterfield-Jones said. “Our goal is to motivate young women. Dr. Darden will be talking to thousands of kids in the DFW community. We think it is so important that kids can look up to her, hear her story and think, ‘I can do that too.’ She is passionate about reaching young people.”

Jean Paul Batiste, chairman, Cultural Affairs Commission, City of Dallas, believes it is important to have people like Darden come to Dallas and speak, especially to middle school and high school students.

“People like Dr. Darden are a living, passionate example of a can do, and get it done,” Batiste said. “Kids, whatever their background, whatever university they come out of, need to have examples of getting it done and can do. Not just talking about it, there is too much rhetoric.

“She is a great example of getting it done. She is elegant, brilliant, very articulate sharer of that.”

Written by Alan Fleck