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From life to a book to the screen
The movie Hidden Figures, due for limited theatrical release on Christmas Day this year with wider release January 7th, tells the story of a team of black female mathematicians who were integral in the launch of the US space program. Without them history may have recorded the earliest days of space exploration very differently.
These “human computers,” as NASA called them, helped the US go from lagging behind the Russians to performing the first complete orbit of earth–but their names still go unremembered, unlike high-profile aerospace heroes such as John Glenn.
Based on a 2016 book by author Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures explores the role of human computers at NASA through the eyes of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. But what was it these amazing women did?
Johnson, the only one of the three women featured who is still living, had a long career with NASA. She began working for the agency in 1953 when it was still NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), joining the team as a “computer” (the job title of that era) in the Guidance and Navigation Department.
Her skill, assertiveness, and ability to ignore the race and gender barriers that existed at the time brought her to the attention of NASA higher-ups, and from 1958 until her retirement in 1986 she served as an aerospace technologist.
During her time in the position she charted Alan Shepard’s flight trajectory, the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission, the Apollo 11 mission, and later plans for Mars flights.
She was so well respected at NASA that John Glenn personally requested she verify the electronic computer calculations for his orbital flight, which was the first NASA mission to use a non-human computer.
Katherine Johnson, desegregation pioneer
Born in 1918, Johnson showed early talent for mathematics, but her school district in White Sulphur Springs, WV, didn’t offer schooling for black students after the eighth grade. So her parents enrolled her in a school that did offer further education for African American students, 130 miles away in Institute, WV.
Johnson continued to excel, and by age 14 she had graduated from high school. By 15 she was attending classes at West Virginia State College and graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18.
A year later she became one of three black students to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University after the Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada ruling by the Supreme Court.
Katherine Johnson's later years
Now living in Hampton, VA, Johnson can claim a long list of accomplishments. She coauthored 26 papers while at NASA, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and is set to be portrayed by actor Taraji P. Henson in the soon-to-be-released film.
The oldest of the three central characters of Hidden Figures, Vaughan began her career as a high school math teacher in Farmville, VA. She started working at NACA in 1943 as a member of West Area Computing, a computing pool made up exclusively of African American women.
Vaughan was made head of the West Area Computing group in 1951 and later served as s Katherine Johnson’s supervisor.
Dorothy Vaughan, computer programmer
Vaughan (pictured left) began working with electronic computers as soon as NASA made them a standard part of its operations. She spent the rest of her career, which lasted until 1971, as a FORTRAN programmer at the Langley Research Center’s Analysis and Computation Division.
Dorothy Vaughan and the Scout project
Vaughan was also a part of the team that developed the Scout rocket. Scout, or Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system, was tested at Wallops flight facility on Wallops Island, VA. It was used for decades to launch satellites into orbit, eventually launching 118 times with a 96 percent success rate.
Dorothy Vaughan passed away in 2008. She will be portrayed in Hidden Figures by actor Octavia Spencer.
Another West Area Computing alumna, Jackson (bottom right) worked at NACA and NASA from 1951 until 1985. She grew up, was educated, and eventually employed at NASA in Hampton, VA, where she continued to live until her death in 2005.
While Jackson started as a computer in the West Area Computing group she hardly stayed put: In 1953 she moved to the Compressibility Research Division, where she calculated results of wind tunnel experiments in the attempt to improve vehicle design for supersonic flight.
Mary Jackson, equal opportunity advocate
After 34 years as an engineer Jackson took a paycut in order to start working at NASA as an administrator in the equal opportunity section. She spent several years working to promote the roles and recognition of women in the aerospace industry, later serving as the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and Program Manager of Equal Opportunity.
Mary Jackson, Scout leader
Jackson was a Girl Scout leader in Hampton, VA, for 20 years. She gained recognition for helping black children build a miniature wind tunnel, which earned her a writeup in an Ebony magazine special issue on black women in the workplace.
Her work in the space program is depicted in Hidden Figures by actor Janelle Monu00e1e.
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