While images of astronauts taking giant leaps for mankind are etched in public memory, few were aware of the pivotal contributions made by three African American women mathematicians, until recently. The movie Hidden Figures brought their stories to life, shining a light on the remarkable feats of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.
The Real Figures Behind Hidden Figures
A prodigious talent from a young age, Katherine Johnson graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College with degrees in mathematics and French. Her journey with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began in 1953.
Johnson’s accuracy in trajectory analysis was so impeccable that even John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, insisted on her manually verifying the calculations before his historic mission. Katherine’s invaluable contributions include her work on the Apollo program, especially the Apollo 11 mission, which made the moon landing possible.
In 2015, President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognizing her pivotal role in America’s aeronautics success.
Mary Jackson’s journey was no less inspiring. She started as a research mathematician, or a “human computer”, at Langley Research Center. But Jackson’s ambitions didn’t stop there. Recognizing her potential, Engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki mentored her, encouraging her to pursue further studies and become an engineer.
Battling the barriers of both racism and sexism, Jackson went on to become NASA’s first African American female engineer. Her endeavors also extended beyond her job, as she ardently championed women and other minorities to pursue careers in science, engineering, and mathematics.
Dorothy Vaughan’s story is emblematic of leadership and foresight. As the head of the West Area Computers, a group of African American female mathematicians at NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), she played a pivotal role in the transition from human computations to electronic computation. Observing the potential of the coming wave of technology, Vaughan equipped herself and her team with knowledge in the FORTRAN programming language, ensuring they remained invaluable during and after the transition.
Hidden Figures the Motion Picture
Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book The Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the Hidden Figures screenplay masterfully tells the true story of these women, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights era. The movie doesn’t just recount historical events; it paints a vivid picture of the adversities black women faced, ranging from explicit racism and sexism to the institutional prejudices prevalent in the era.
Actress, Octavia Spencer plays on the resilience and foresight of Dorothy Vaughan, displaying her astute leadership and adaptability in the face of change. Janelle Monáe, plays Mary Jackson, and skillfully captures the spirit of a woman determined to shatter glass ceilings in a world dominated by white male engineers. But it’s perhaps Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson that remains stuck in the viewer’s memory, mirroring Johnson’s precision and determination in every frame.
Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison (loosely based on several NASA officials) becomes a beacon of change and progression, while Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell and Jim Parsons’ Paul Stafford epitomize the latent biases of the era. The story of segregated bathrooms, represented through Katherine’s long treks to a “colored” restroom, serve as an uncomfortable reminder of the era’s racial segregation.
Langley, Virginia: The Hub of Innovation Amidst Racial Strife
Located in the city of Hampton, the NASA Langley Research Center was a hub of innovation in a state marred by racial prejudices. While the defense industry was beginning to reluctantly accept the need for integration, largely driven by an executive order that aimed at ending discrimination in the defense labor force,
Virginia’s Jim Crow laws still dictated daily life. Even within the Langley facility, African American mathematicians like Miriam Mann had to remove “colored” tags from tables daily, an act of quiet resistance against the segregation within the research facility.
The Legacy of the Hidden Figures
The significance of these African American, female mathematicians extends beyond their contributions to NASA and the space race. These women symbolized resistance against racial and gender discrimination. As Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, remarked, these women were “critical to the success of the early space program.”
Their stories also reflect a broader tale of African Americans in science and technology. For a very long time, their contributions were marginalized, their stories untold. Hidden Figures finally gave these heroines their deserved place in history.
While the space race is often remembered for the astronauts and rockets, the hidden figures behind the scenes — the brilliant, resilient black women of Langley — were just as instrumental. Their story indicates that talent knows no gender or race and that every individual, regardless of their background, can contribute to pushing humanity forward. The movie Hidden Figures is certainly a triumph, and it ensures their stories never go hidden again.
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