E&H’s Role in the Space Race

Posted by Monica Hoel
As the US celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, let’s remember our E&H alumni who were part of the success.

“It was an amazing time.” 

If you’rve read Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures you may have noticed that toward the end of the book there is a reference to Katherine Johnson working with John Young. That’s E&H’s John Young, Class of 1955 (deceased).

Hidden Figures tells the story of the unsung “computers” – the women, many of whom were African American, who crunched the numbers for engineers. It’s a story of the people who were pivotal to the space race but had barriers to being classified as engineers because of gender and race. One of the main figures profiled in the book is Katherine Johnson: the woman who John Glenn requested to do the final calculations for re-entry before he would agree to his trip into orbit.

Katherine taught school for many years in Marion, Virginia, and her first husband, James Goble, was a brother to Scrapper Broady’s mother. Scrapper is a 1970 E&H graduate and is currently serving his alma mater on the Emory & Henry Board of Trustees. He was among the first African American students to study at Emory & Henry. He remembers John Young’s father, Rusty Young (E&H ’27, former E&H physics professor) speaking highly of his aunt’s work. “And she spoke highly of the Youngs, too.”

John Young worked alongside Katherine for around 25 years.  John’s brother, E&H alumnus Phil Young (E&H ’62, and self-described “retired rocket scientist”) also spent his career at NASA. Phil worked with Margot Lee Shetterly’s father, and remembers Mary Jackson and Christina Darden (profiled in the book) from his days at NASA’s Hampton Roads division. He also met Katherine Johnson a time or two. Phil says Katherine told him that she takes credit for teaching John to talk. “They called him Silent John in college. One day at Langley, Katherine threw some paper in John’s waste basket, and he said, ‘Who told you you could use my trash can?’ And Katherine shouted, ‘He can talk!’”

Back in 1985, Patsi Trollinger (E&H ’72, former E&H Public Relations Director) wrote an Alumni Magazine story about the large number of E&H alumni who were involved with the space program (we’ll email you a copy if you’re interested). Phil says the recruiter from Langley used to visit Emory & Henry because they needed good employees, and they needed a lot of them. “He liked the graduates from Emory & Henry, so he kept coming back to campus to recruit. My father [Dr. “Rusty” Young] would point out the students who were especially promising.” The alumni magazine article includes a long list of alumni who worked at Langley and NASA over the years, but conversations will prove that it still isn’t an exhaustive list. Technical writers, engineers, mathematicians – there were many roles in the space program filled by talented scientists with E&H degrees.

“It’s amazing that so many E&H people worked on Apollo. With only 5-6 science grads a year versus the numbers being put out by places like Purdue – E&H probably had a higher percentage of alumni in the space program than any college in America.”

  • Dr. Rusty Young, E&H Class of 1927. This E&H math and physics professor was the catalyst ...
    Dr. Rusty Young, E&H Class of 1927. This E&H math and physics professor was the catalyst for many E&H alumni working at NASA during the space race.
    Billie Wheeler
“It’s amazing that so many E&H people worked on Apollo. With only 5-6 science grads a year versus the numbers being put out by places like Purdue – E&H probably had a higher percentage of alumni in the space program than any college in America.”

– Phil Young, E&H Class of 1962

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