Darden was born September 10, 1942 to Desma Cheney and Noah Horace Mann Sr. in Monroe, North Carolina. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father was an insurance agent. Her parents encouraged her education, sending her to Allen High School, a boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1962, she graduated from Hampton Institute with a B.S. in mathematics. After earning her degree she briefly taught high school mathematics. In 1963, she married Walter L. Darden Jr., a middle school science teacher. In 1965 she became a research assistant at Virginia State College, studying aerosol physics. At Virginia State, she also worked as a professor of mathematics and earned her M.S. in 1967.
In 1967 Darden was hired by NASA as a data analyst at Langley Research Center. At first her work was primarily performing calculations for engineers, but she later began writing computer programs for the engineers. In 1973 she was promoted to an aerospace engineer. During this time she continued her education, earning her Ph.D in 1983 from George Washington University. In 1989 she was promoted to leader of the Sonic Boom Team. On the Sonic Boom Team she worked to decrease the negative effects of sonic booms such as noise pollution and the depletion of the ozone layer. Her team tested new wing and nose designs for supersonic aircraft. She also designed a computer program to simulate sonic booms.
In 1985 Darden was awarded the Dr. A. T. Weathers Technical Achievement Award from the National Technical Association. She also received three Certificates of Outstanding Performance from Langley Research Center in 1989, 1991, and 1992.
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