I recently reposted a NASA image of a woman named Melba Roy, a graduate of Howard and, at the time the photo was taken (according to the NASA archive, 1960, not 1964 as given elsewhere), the head of “computers” (mathematicians charged with calculating Echo satellite orbits) at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. Then, as anyone would, I googled her to see if there was more out there. On vanilla google and on nasa.gov, I was not successful. Lexis-Nexis turned up a June 29, 1990 obituary in the Washington Post, however. Roy was her first married name; after her divorce from Wardell Roy, Melba Roy married a Webster Mouton; her obituary gives her name as Melba Roy Mouton. She had two children from her first marriage and one from her second. She had a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, as well as a master’s degree in mathematics, also from Howard. She seems to have been born and raised in the D.C. area (northern Virginia), and died in Silver Spring, MD of a brain tumor at only 61. The most interesting thing about Melba Roy Mouton is of course her career.* Her obituary states,
NASA’s own gloss on the photo above reads:She had worked 18 years for the federal government before retiring in 1973, and spent the last 14 of those years with NASA. Earlier she had worked at the Census Bureau and the Army Map Service.
She had received an Apollo Achievement Award and an Exceptional Performance Award from NASA.
A 1968 NASA report on “The Goddard General Orbit Determination System” offers a little more specificity in the acknowledgments (all NASA reports cited in this post are pdfs):Melba Roy headed a group of NASA mathematicians, known as “computers,” who tracked early Echo satellites in Earth orbit. Roy’s computations helped produce the orbital element timetables by which millions saw the satellite from Earth as it passed overhead.
She is also acknowledged for “generous support” in the 1968 NASA Technical Note “Application of Hansen’s Method to the Xth Satellite of Jupiter.” In a 1968 report (this was a good year for reports, apparently) titled “Experimental Use of A Programming Language (APL) at the Goddard Space Flight Center,” Melba Roy Mouton is named as a member of “a select group” that spent a week preparing Kenneth Iverson and his colleagues to give a two-week seminar on APL at Goddard. This preparation consisted of “indoctrinating Dr. Iverson’s staff in the types and range of problems of interest to Goddard.”The Goddard General Orbit Determination System was programed by a team of Goddard staff members under the direction of Thomas P. Gorman, who served for a number of years as Head of the Data Systems Division’s Advanced Orbital Programming Branch, and Melba Mouton, who succeeded him in that position and is currently serving as Head of the Mission and Trajectory Analysis Division’s Program Systems Branch.
She is the author of “Motivation and Training or Automation,” in the proceedings of a 1970 symposium, “Automated Methods of Computer Program Documentation.”
Perhaps most interestingly, in 1972, NASA used her image, along with that of a number of black colleagues, in at least one newspaper ad declaring the administration’s commitment to diversity. This full-page ad is from The Afro American, 15 April 1972.
I wish more information on Melba Roy Mouton were easily available! *Actually, it’s not at all obvious that the most interesting thing about Melba Roy Mouton was her career. It’s just the most interesting thing that can be turned up on the internet in half an hour. And it’s pretty interesting.
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- asfaltics said: am reminded of the NSA publication The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956 (2001), obtainable via nsa.gov/about/c…
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