Melba Roy Mouton: A 'Hidden Figure' Whose Legacy Paved the Way for Web3

Early Life

Born in Fairfax, VA in 1929, Mouton studied math at Howard University, where she received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Mathematics. After graduation, she began a career focused in applied mathematics, starting with statistical analysis in the Army Map Service and the Census Bureau. In this position, she analyzed large data sets from the U.S. Census, and assisted the US government in plotting future neighborhoods and population centers.

NASA Career

After four years at the Army Map Service and Census Bureau, Mouton moved over to NASA, where spent the last 14 years of her career. At NASA, Mouton applied her expertise in statistical analysis to reporting and tracking space crafts. Her first major project was tracking Echo 1, one of the first satellites to successfully launch into orbit.

Echo 1 was used to redirect transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio, and television signals. It did this by reflecting ground-based transmissions and actively bouncing two-way communications signals from one global coordinate to another, demonstrating the promise satellites held for improving global communications.

Tracking these space crafts was extremely challenging work because it required mathematicians like Mouton to master multiple tracking formats such as optical data (images from telescopes and screens), digital data (transmissions from the NASA Minitrack, a system that utilized a system of various receiving antennas to track the direction of a satellite’s orbit), and radar coordinates transmitted from different locations across the globe and surrounding atmosphere, and synthesize all this data into one streamlined report that documented and predicted the satellite’s orbit.

Physicist and NASA post-doc Chandra Prescod-Weinstein once described Mouton’s work as “extremely intense,” explaining “When we launch satellites into orbit, there are a lot of things to keep track of. We have to ensure that gravitational pull from other bodies, such as other satellites, the moon, etc., don’t perturb and destabilize the orbit. These are extremely hard calculations to do even today, even with a machine-computer.”

Mouton’s Contribution to the Decentralized Web

Mouton’s ability to synthesize different data formats in this initial project led to additional projects adapting early computer programming languages, like APL, for use in deploying multiple machines to process large data sets simultaneously. Her mastery of these languages was so widely recognized at NASA that she became a coding instructor at NASA, training other scientists in how to develop and document various programs to further space exploration research efforts through classes and seminars. In fact, her seminars and documented research on early, statistically-typed programming languages created a body of work within NASA that served as a key precursor to current programming languages like Solidity and Rust that power decentralized development on web3 platforms.

Throughout each of these projects, Mouton’s thorough and comprehensive approach to statistical analysis and programming documentation enabled her to rise up NASA’s ranks quickly. Within her first few years at NASA, she assumed the rank of head mathematician for Echo satellites 1 and 2, and by 1961, head programmer for a team responsible for “predicting spacecraft trajectories and locations.” When she retired in 1973, she was the program production section chief for the center, overseeing the work that gave NASA the ability to track spacecraft in orbit. Her contributions were so notable that NASA awarded her an Apollo Achievement Award and an Exceptional Performance Award prior to her retirement.

Seventeen years later, Mouton died of a brain tumor at the age of 61, leaving behind three children and a legacy of research that continues to power the creation and development of the decentralized web.