Nowadays mechanical intelligence is often chosen over that of our own human capabilities. But there was a time where our computers were still not always a match against our own organic brain power. When the Space Race of the late 1950's to mid-1970's between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was keeping everyone on the edge of their seats, NASA found not mechanical intelligence, but the human brain up for the complex tasks necessary to make rocketry experiments, satellite launches and space missions a success. But who were these capable humans that made all of this happen?
The Human Computers were a group of highly skilled women with backgrounds in mathematics who were working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the JPL). These women have been responsible for performing hundreds of thousands of calculations for numerous missions. Some noteworthy operations were the ground-breaking first flight into space, the launch of the Explore 1 satellite and the trajectory for Apollo 11's moon landing. Their work has been crucial to the development of America's space program. At a time where white men dominated all of the professional technical fields, the Human Computers were an important step towards the emancipation of women and people of colour.
But why humans?
Our early mechanical computers were enormous in size and computing capacities were in many cases far less powerful than that of humans. Human intelligence at that time was much more efficient in performing actions such as executing rapid calculations and graphing data points on trajectories. When a spacecraft is launched, the vehicle sends out telemetry signals back to earth that gives information on its whereabouts. But due to the movement of the spacecraft that change all the time, revealing its exact location demands of rapid calculations which computers of that era weren't capable of. Nowadays the capacities of our computers have surpassed most of our brain's potential, but not in full. In modern space exploration joint efforts between man and machine are still celebrated: whereas computing is handed over to technological devices, trajectory analysis and mission planning are still done by human computers.