The theatrical release of Hidden Figures tells the story of the African American women who were known as “computers” long before room-filling machines, or laptops for that matter, used the moniker. These women were hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) for their exemplary mathematical skills.
Considering the push for girls and young women even today to take more interest in and pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields, it’s inspiring to know there were women breaking barriers in these fields as men—and for decades, it was only men, usually white—prepared to leave Earth to explore the cosmos.
In the movie, based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, a trio of women are depicted as being not only integral to the John Glenn and his team before the launch of Friendship 7 in early 1962, but as seen as more reliable, dependable and important to the process than the IBM computer that had been purchased and was being tested for trajectory calculations.
The women were called “computers” because they were calculating complex engineering and telemetry equations but were not engineers or what we’d call rocket scientists today. They had degrees in math and science but were often discouraged from presenting their research, viewed with jaws dropped when they spoke to a room filled with white men, and, thanks to the segregationist nature of the times, had to run ridiculously long distances – half a mile!—to use restrooms designated for African-American women across the campus of what is now the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
In one scene of the movie, John Glenn asks for “the girl” to verify the calculations for his pending trip off Earth’s surface. “If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go,” he adds. “The girl” in question is Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, who quickly ran off to verify the calculations of the IBM 7090 computers almost 200 miles away at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
There’s some question as to when Glenn asked for those numbers to be verified and how long it took Johnson to confirm the figures, but the conversation did, in fact take place.
In another exchange, Johnson is stopped before going into a room where high-level NASA engineers are meeting to discuss the launch. An engineer tells her she should reconsider, as there was “no protocol” for a woman, let alone an African American woman, to attend such briefings. In the film, Johnson responds: “There’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth either, sir.”
Charles Bolden is, as of January 7, 2017, the first African American to serve as NASA’s administrator and he’s quite proud of the film, for many and obvious reasons. He’s encouraging NASA employees to see the film, which he touts as an emotional journey.
As for the blatant segregation portrayed in the film, “I think we’ve all experienced things like that,” he told the LA Times. “If I’m in my jeans and t-shirt and I walk into somewhere where nobody knows I’m the NASA administrator, even around Washington, D.C., there are some places I can go where the worst is assumed.”
In addition to Johnson, the film tells the story of Mary Jackson, who NASA says “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Jackson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes,” said Janelle Monáe, who portrays Jackson in the film, to NPR. “Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would not have made it into space. We would not have made it into orbit.”
Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan in the film and told The Hollywood Reporter she felt it of vital importance that the story of these women, and all they represent, be told to the world. “After doing a little research, I realized these women were real. I got a little angry that history had obscured their contributions to the space program and, with what’s going on in this country today, part of me just felt sad. It was about time that the world found out about them, and I wanted to be part of that telling.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Pharrell Williams, who is credited as a producer of the film and co-wrote the movie’s score and several songs on its soundtrack. He’s proud of the film as “chipping away at the pro-male narrative that’s out there right now, which needs to go. There needs to be a narrative that is shared by both men and women. The female contribution can be hid no more.”
For what it’s worth, NASA is not shying away from its history and is making great strides to credit these women for their role in helping send men to the moon and back. In May 2016, NASA announced it would name the new 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center for Katherine Johnson.
Engineers and scientists at the facility will “perform advanced computational research and development, crunching data and numbers that will one day help NASA land humans on Mars; design quieter, faster and more efficient future aircraft; and help us better understand our changing climate. It’s not unlike the work Katherine did in her tenure, helping NASA send the first Americans into space, into orbit around Earth and to the moon and back—except she didn’t have a 40,000-square foot building full of cutting-edge technology,” said Clayton Turner, Langley’s deputy director, during the dedication ceremony.
Johnson, who began working at Langley in 1953 and is now 97 years old, was in attendance at the ceremony. “Thank you so much for your attention and your kindness, but more than that, I am so happy that you are now giving more recognition to women for the work they have done. I thank you for recognizing that women have long been doing a lot of the work.”