Gladys West is important. The work that she and other black women did behind the scenes for U.S. space and missile programs has seen scarce light over the decades. In recent years, with help from explorations such as the hit film Hidden Figures, more Americans have become exposed to the greater diversity running through American history. West, now 87 years old, was a mathematician; when she was hired in 1956 to work on calculations, the programming of early computers, and space data collection, she was one of only four African-Americans at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia. The work she did at the facility was part of the foundation on which the Global Positioning System was developed.
West had been a forgotten figure in history until she happened to mention “her contribution in a biography she wrote for a sorority function,” at which point the community around her took notice and began to push for her recognition. The Washington Informer reports today that West has finally been recognized with the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers award and induction into the Air Force Hall of Fame.
The Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Award pays tribute to the leaders of the early years of the Air Force space program, as well as the subsequent innovators whose vision and perseverance overcame the obstacles of the unknown, those who transformed the cutting edge of technology into operational systems, and those who dedicated their lives to exploring space in support of our national security concerns.
Congratulations, Mrs. West.
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