Hidden Figure: The Mountain-Moving Career and Contributions of NASA Mathematician, Melba Mouton

On the surface of the moon stands a mountain as wide as the state of Delaware and taller than Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. In February of 2023–a month honoring the struggles and triumphs of Black Americans–this mountain, carved by billions of years of lunar impacts, was named Mons Mouton. It earned its name from Melba Roy Mouton, a Black woman who had a vast impact on the early history and development of space science.

Born in 1929 in Fairfax, Virginia, Melba Mouton earned her master’s degree in Mathematics at Howard University in 1950. Having made her start by working for the Army Map Service and the Census Bureau, Mouton went on to join NASA in 1959, only one year after the space agency was established. As the head mathematician of a group of mathematicians known as human computers (a role made famous by the 2016 book and film Hidden Figures), Mouton assisted in the launch and tracking of the Echo 1 and Echo 2 satellites in the early 1960s. With complex mathematical considerations such as the gravitational pull of Earth, other planets, and the Moon, this would have been a herculean task, even for an electronic computer.

In 1961, Melba Mouton became the head programmer for the NASA branch responsible for coding the early computer programs, which would later permit NASA to track orbiting spacecraft. After 14 years at NASA, she eventually retired in 1973, but not before becoming the assistant chief of research programs for the Trajectory and Geodynamics Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Mouton’s stellar contributions peaked with the 1969 landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. For this, and other accomplishments, Mouton was honored with an Apollo Achievement Award.

Melba Mouton died in 1990, but her life’s work has made a lasting impact on space exploration, satellite technology (necessary for the phones and computers we use daily), and on the toponymy of the moon. Mons Mouton is even being considered as a landing region for Artemis 3, the first crewed lunar landing mission since 1972. Her legacy and work continue to be inspirational well after her passing.

Alexandra Norman | Project Assistant

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Images: creative commons license via NASA Flickr and ESE Events

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