I went to see Hidden Figures on the Martin Luther King holiday, and it was a perfect way to celebrate. The lines were surprisingly long, the audience diverse – young and old, black and white.
The movie is based on the non-fiction book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly and tells the story of a team of African-American women who provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine Gobel Johnson, a mathematician (called a calculator, since there were no machines at that point in time) who calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the Mercury rockets – a step up from the Redstone rocket which launched Alan Shepard in and up and down trip out of Earth’s atmosphere. Octavia Spencer, who makes me want to hug her in every role she plays, is Dorothy Vaughn, who oversees the group of African American women computers and who teaches herself Fortran, so when the room-sized IBM computer arrives, she is qualified to run it. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who becomes the first black woman engineer at NASA, despite the obstacles in place to prevent her from getting a degree.
Physicist Katherine Johnson was known for her accuracy in computing celestial navigation, Her technical work at NASA spanned decades during which she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including John Glenn’s first mission, the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle Program and plans for a Mars mission.
Mathematician Dorothy Vaughn was assigned by NASA to the West End Computers, the segregated group consisting of all-African American women who worked on mathematical calculations by hand using tools to improve accuracy in space flight. She moved into the area of electronic computing when the first computers were introduced at NASA. Vaughan did computer programming, becoming proficient in coding languages, and also contributed to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.
Mary Jackson began her career at NASA as a research mathematician, or computer, working under Dorothy Vaughan the segregated West Area Computing Section. She accepted an offer to work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a wind tunnel used to study forces on a model by generating winds at almost twice the speed of sound. Jackson was encouraged to undergo training to become an engineer. Jackson needed to take graduate-level night courses in math and physics, offered by the University of Virginia at Hampton High School, which was at that time white-only. She petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the classes, and was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958, becaming NASA’s first black female engineer.
The movie was heart-warming and uplifting, celebrating the overlooked and crucial contributions of these women of NASA at a pivotal moment in our history. Ty Burr, who reviewed it for The Boston Globe, summed up my feelings about it succinctly: “the film’s made with more heart than art and more skill than subtlety, and it works primarily because of the women that it portrays and the actresses who portray them. Best of all, you come out of the movie knowing who Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are, and so do your daughters and sons.”