Forget the usual masculine and white astronaut image. In “Hidden Figures”, a book by Margot Lee Shetterly and a feature film based on the book, by Theodore Melfi, you’ll meet African American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson who formed part of the country’s space work force, or that this group—mathematical ground troops in the Cold War—helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are leading these incredible and untold story. Kirsten Dunn and Kevin Costner are also part of the cast. Pharrell Williams already announced he’ll composed the music of the film.
Katherine Johnson who is 91 today, is a woman of color pursued higher education in the segregation era, culminating in her critical role in the launch and safe return of astronaut John Glenn.
Johnson was one of a team of female “computers” working for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). According to a NASA profile on Johnson, the NACA had started hiring women to carry out the “tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating the results of wind tunnel tests in 1935.”
During and after World War II they began to hire women of color as well, including Johnson in 1953. By then she had already built up quite the resume.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson demonstrated a brightness and aptitude for math at an early age. Her affinity for schooling led her to enter high school by age 10, according to another NASA profile. By age 15, she was enrolled in West Virginia State College.
After school she worked as a teacher and a stay-at-home mom before coming to NACA.
In 1953, America was in the throes of the space race. Johnson was set to work doing the complicated calculations necessary to set the flight paths for the first astronauts in space. She didn’t do it alone, of course. She was part of a whole team of black female mathematicians including Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley.
According to NASA, Johnson stood out because she not only did the calculations, but also probed the “hows” and “whys” of space flight. Of course in the 1950s, a woman of color asking questions at her job wasn’t too highly regarded. But Johnson pressed on as she always did.
“She was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings; she asked if there were a law against it. The answer, of course, was no, and so Johnson began to attend briefings,” NASA wrote.
Eventually her tenacity, intelligence, and inquisitive nature landed her leadership roles in the space program where she deepened NASA’s understanding of the geometry of space flight.
“Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7—the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth,” NASA wrote in her profile.
She took to working with computers and continued to work with NASA until 1986. “Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space,” the profile said.
On Nov. 24, 2015, President Barack Obama gave Johnson the highest civilian honor: the Medal of Freedom. According to a White House blog post on the ceremony, Johnson’s medal is, on some level, symbolic of the untold history of peoples of color contributions to STEM.
We can’t wait for the release of the book the 6th of September and the feature film in January 2017 for Martin Luther King day.
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