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It figures: Monroe native Christine Darden broke space barriers
NASA engineer headlines Power of One fundraiser
Published Wednesday, March 21, 2018 7:52 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Monroe native Christine Darden will share stories of her work with the U.S. space program at the Power of One fundraiser March 22 at Noah’s Event Venue, 2421 Yorkmont Road.

Christine Darden hasn’t stopped solving physical problems with mathematical equations.

Darden, a Monroe native, will share her journey to becoming a NASA engineer at the seventh annual “Power of One” Project One Scholarship Foundation fundraiser on March 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Noah’s Event Venue, 2421 Yorkmont Road. POSF’s annual fundraiser also features Leading on Opportunity Task Force co-chair James Ford, the 2014 North Carolina teacher of the year. Last year’s POSF raised over $100,000 in donations.

Attending the event is free, but registration is required.

POSF students come from low-income, single-parent homes. They must live in Mecklenburg County, intend to attend one of the 16 campuses in the UNC system and have GPA of at least 2.5. Applicants must apply for FAFSA.

“Both fit our theme – The Power of One,” POSF Founder Neal Emmons said. “We like to highlight the impact a single individual can have on the world.”

Darden’s story may sound familiar to that of the film adaptation of the book “Hidden Figures,” which chronicles the impact women of color had on America’s space program. Her journey began long before she walked the halls of NASA’s Langley Research Center as a data analyst. She fell in love with geometry during her junior year of high school, which led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education at Hampton University in 1962.

“I fell in love with geometry in the 11th grade,” Darden said. “I did OK in math below that. I had algebra before that. I liked how geometry related to the physical world, and that’s what I ended up really liking—how mathematics relates to the physical world. I always liked the physical sciences, and things like that too. I realized at some point that I was disappointed when a math teacher didn’t go to the applied problems to show you how these problems related to real life.”

Darden’s passion for understanding the why behind a given question began long before she took trigonometry.

“My mother [Desma Mann] always said I really liked what made things work,” Darden said. “She gave me a doll when I was five. The doll talked, and she said I cut the doll open to see what made her talk, rather than play with her. I liked to help my dad [Noah Mann] with the car. I had a natural interest in those kinds of things.”

Her ability to perceive, plan, prepare and persist propelled her through Hampton, and eventually through a masters in applied mathematics from Virginia State University and later a doctorate in mechanical engineering from George Washington University while she worked at the space agency.

“My father wanted me to be a teacher,” said Darden, who taught high school math in Virginia after earning her undergrad degree, and received offers to teach at Hampton and Norfolk State University while at NASA. “I took all of my electives in higher math that I did not have to have to graduate with a teacher’s certificate.”

In search of employment in Petersburg, she asked the head of Virginia State’s math department if he knew of any available jobs.

“He said, ‘oh, you’re looking for a job, well me take you across the hall to the head of the physics department—he’s looking for a research assistant,’” Darden said. “I got that position that night. That research assistant position paid for me to get my master’s in applied math, and it gave me extra money. When I finished that, NASA had been there recruiting. That’s when I got hired. If I had not taken all of those extra math classes, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to NASA. I did take the classes on my own, which wasn’t always easy. There was something pushing me, and things did seem to fall into place.”

Darden was assigned to a computer office, which served as a support office for engineers.

“I got there two years before we walked on the moon,” Darden said. “All of those calculations for the Apollo program had already been done before I got there.”

Darden took an engineering 101 class during her five-year stint in that position, and realized she really enjoyed it.

“I decided that I wanted to be working as an engineer rather than as a computer,” Darden said. “I asked the immediate supervisor about transferring, and they said, ‘no, that wasn’t possible.’”

Darden approached director John Becker with a question regarding why men and women were placed in distinctive roles at Langley.

“Why is it that a male and a female coming here with the same background, a male is put in an engineering section, they work on their own projects, they give talks, they write papers and they get promoted, but the females with that background are put in a computer office where you don’t give talks, you don’t get your name on papers and you don’t get promoted? He said, ‘nobody had ever asked me that question before.’ So I said, ‘well I am asking it now.’”

Stereotypes indicated that often white women in the computer section would marry engineers and become housewives.

“The black computers did not do that,” Darden said. “There’s not that many black engineers for them to marry and go home, and salaries would have been a whole lot different. That might have been part of his reasoning.”

Darden earned a promotion within a week, the payoff to a question that could have cost her job.

“I hadn’t gotten promoted since I’d been there,” Darden said. “That was when I started working on Sonic Boom [NASA's high-speed research program], and ended up working in that for about 25 years.”

For tickets: www.eventbrite.com/e/project-one-power-of-one-fundraiser-tickets-43200812794  


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