The film Hidden Figures focuses on the little-known story of a team of female African-American mathematicians. These women served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. Because of this, teen girls especially can benefit from the portrayal of the powerful women of Hidden Figures.
The film is based on Hidden Figures: the Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book’s author, Margot Lee Shetterly, published it in 2016. From the introduction: “Before John Glenn orbited Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as ‘human computers’ used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.”
Congressional Gold Medal
In 2019, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan received the Congressional Gold Medal. Unfortunately, none of the women were alive to accept this honor.
Katherine Johnson: From Gifted Child to NASA Mathematician
From an early age, it was clear that Katherine Johnson was gifted. As a result, she attended the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. In 1939, she was the first African American woman to integrate West Virginia University. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. This was a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight specifying the landing position of the spacecraft. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.
Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. She calculated the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission. As a result, the mission was a success.
In 2015 President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Johnson was 97 years old.
Johnson remained modest about her place in history. Quoted in a New York Times article about her life, she said “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
In Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson. Johnson died in 2018. She was 101 years old.
Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer
Mary Jackson graduated from Hampton Institute in 1942 with a dual degree in math and physical sciences. She started her NASA career in the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
In order to attend the engineering classes she needed to work at NASA, Jackson had to petition the court of the city of Hampton, Virginia. The classes were held at an all-white high school, which did not normally accept people of color. First of all, Jackson had to appear in court to accomplish this, which she did. After hearing her appeal, the judge ruled in her favor.
As a result, in 1958, Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer.
In 2020, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.
Janelle Monáe portrays Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83.
Dorothy Vaughan: First African-American Supervisor at West Area Computers
In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan started what she thought would be a temporary job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. However, she stayed there for 28 years!
In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the segregated West Area Computers. West Area Computers, according to NASA, was “an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley.”
Vaughn was the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the center. As a result, she later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley.
Vaughan was the mother of six children. One of them also worked at NASA.
Vaughan worked for opportunities for women in hers as well as other departments in NASA. Of her time at NASA, Vaughan said “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”
Octavia Spencer received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress for her role as Dorothy Vaughan in the film. Vaughan died in 2008 at the age of 98.
Women Pioneers of the Space Program
These three pioneers are an example of how women who persist can succeed against all odds. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, the powerful women of Hidden Figures. Sharing stories like these goes a long way towards helping teen girls’ self-esteem.