ASHEVILLE – On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in Earth’s orbit, initiating the start of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Darden works with old school computer

Christine Darden is a former aeronautical engineer, mathematician and data analyst at NASA.
Image Credit: NASA

One girl in particular was captivated. At 15 years old, Christine Darden walked into her Monroe, N.C., school on Oct. 5 waving a headline from the morning paper: “Soviet Fires Earth Satellite into Space; It is Circling the Globe at 18,000 MPH; Sphere Tracked in 4 Crossings Over U.S.

“Our yearbook theme that year was on space. That might have been the beginning of my love for it,” Darden said on March 1 in her keynote lecture at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

At a time when women were viewed as inferior to men, and when African Americans faced racial segregation, Darden overcame the odds and became one of the first female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley, and later, the first African-American woman to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service for her studies into supersonic flight and sonic booms.

Her career was chronicled in the 2016 novel titled “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” – and later, in a film with the same name.

Darden’s accomplishments have been inspiring women for decades, including Clemson students from the Association for Women in Mathematics, a club in the College of Science that promotes the roles of women in mathematics. The group traveled to Asheville on March 1 to hear Darden speak in UNC Asheville’s Parsons Lecture.

In a procession of packed cars, the students left the South Carolina foothills and drove into the mountains of western North Carolina. During the nearly two-hour drive from Clemson to downtown Asheville, the students – accompanied by Sean Sather-Wagstaff, a professor of mathematical sciences at Clemson – shared their excitement about Darden’s upcoming presentation.

“I came out tonight because I wanted to hear someone who’s very important in our history speak,” said Aidan Murphy, a first-year graduate student in mathematical sciences. “I think African-American women in mathematics are a very underrepresented group and I think it’s very important to be aware of the work that everyone does, and at what fashion they do it.”

Before attending the lecture, the group stopped for dinner at Pack’s Tavern, a family owned restaurant housed within one of the oldest buildings in Asheville that boasts a rich history and “eclectic eats.” They circled around a dinner table and discussed their expectations for Darden’s lecture.

“I think that the story of ‘Hidden Figures’ – these women who were working at NASA – it’s simultaneously inspiring and frustrating. Their story was hidden for a long time, and now that it is visible, I think it’s important for us to see it and to hear it,” Sather-Wagstaff said. “Seeing the movie and the popularity of it was fantastic. But to get the opportunity to hear Dr. Darden talk about it – individually instead of Hollywood actors portraying the story – it’s just an exciting opportunity for me.”

With only about 15 minutes to spare before Darden’s 7 p.m. call time, the group headed over to UNC Asheville’s campus. Darden’s lecture was one of four events occurring on March 1, which resulted in backed-up traffic and hard-fought parking spots.

Open seats in the Lipinsky Hall Auditorium were just as difficult to find. The 580-seat venue was standing-room only, with audience members jammed into walkways and lined up against the back wall. The lobby outside of the auditorium had been prepared with row-upon-row of foldable chairs and a speaker system that streamed Darden’s talk so that everyone would at least have a chance to hear the renowned mathematician, even if they couldn’t see her.

Organizers from UNC Asheville took the stage first and discussed the history of the Parsons Lecture, noting that Darden’s appearance had drawn the largest-ever crowd in the series’ history. They then introduced Darden, who received a standing ovation as she approached the mic.

“I think everyone in here knows I was not in the movie, although I have been asked who played me in the movie,” Darden said in her opening line.

She then told the story of her interactions with the three leading mathematicians made famous by “Hidden Figures” – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

“Dorothy Vaughan worked there 25 years before I did, and Katherine and Mary were about 15 years ahead of me,” Darden said. “But they were all there when I started working there; I knew them all.”

Darden at podium

Darden spoke about her life leading up to her appointment at NASA, and about the science of sonic booms.
Image Credit: College of Science

Darden said she thinks of herself as being in the next generation of NASA mathematicians, standing on the shoulders of the women who came before her.

“They all did excellent work. They worked hard, and even though they faced discrimination, they still did their jobs. They spoke up for what they wanted. Each one of them said they wanted to be a supervisor – I want to be an engineer, I want to go in the room where they’re making the decisions, I want to do calculations, why can’t I come in that room? So, they spoke up,” she said.

When Darden was transferred from the pool of “human computers” – data analysts who solved complex calculations – and into aeronautical research in 1973, one of her first assignments was to write a computer program for sonic booms. That program sparked Darden’s area of expertise in sonic boom minimization.

In 1983, she received her Ph.D. in engineering from George Washington University, and six years later, she was appointed leader of the Sonic Boom Group at NASA. Much of her research was concerned with reducing noise pollution associated with supersonic flight. She wrote computer programs to simulate sonic booms, designed new wing and nose configurations for supersonic planes, and has published numerous papers on supersonic flow, flap design, sonic boom prediction and sonic boom minimization.

Camille Zerfas, a Clemson graduate student who attended the trip, identified with Darden in her own studies of mathematics.

“I found it interesting because she talked about computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and solving those kind of equations, and that’s kind of what I do with my research,” Zerfas said after the lecture.

“I think Dr. Darden said it herself – she was in a place where she wasn’t getting credit for her work, she just kind of did the work without being recognized for it. She ended up asking to get the promotion and asking the right questions. She’s really pushed her way into the field,” added graduate student Kara Stasikelis.

NASA’s 2019 budget proposal includes full funding for an experimental supersonic airplane, known as the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD), which could fly faster than the speed of sound without creating sonic booms. If successful, the X-plane could one day transport commercial-airline passengers across the country in half the time of current flights.