This may come as a shock to some, but it shouldn’t: History, and science, is not the domain of white men alone.

The year was 1957 and societal change was brimming with glory. Segregation was officially outlawed as illegal and employment was available to citizens of various backgrounds. The notion of equal opportunity was in its formative stages as more people of color sought out highly esteemed careers. During this time, Sputnik shocked the world as the first artificial satellite to be released into orbit.

Langley Research Center. Image Source: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/va1794.photos.192358p

Although noteworthy, Sputnik wasn’t the only groundbreaking development to make scientific history. However, this sensational advancement created an opportunity for immense social change. Due to this launch, NASA, formally known as NACA began shifting their focus towards discovering more scientific information about space travel. In order to accomplish this feat, a stark expert in mathematical calculations was needed.

Katherine Johnson- An American Genius

Image Source: NASA

Blooming with spunk and intelligence was African-American mathematician, Katherine Johnson. Her 1958 contributions to the iconic compilation of text called “Notes on Space Technology” was the blueprint for creating The Space Task Group. Johnson solved complex equations that predicted launch timings for aeronautics that would eventually be placed into outer space.

The success of the iconic Freedom 7 mission of 1961 is attributed to the trajectory calculations of Katherine Johnson. Before the technological advancements of calculators, handwritten estimates were used to solve math problems.

Katherine Johnson not only provided accurate trajectory calculations for future missions, she also developed navigational systems using stars, used mathematical equations for space capsules to orbit the moon, and authored over 25 essays. Her revolutionary complement to the advancement of space exploration enabled her to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom granted by former president Barack Obama. Although her journey to achievements beyond earth is mind-blowing, the story behind how Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues changed NASA serves as a triumphant inspiration to little girls of color everywhere.

War Brings About New Career Developments

NASA began hiring women in their mathematics department shortly after World War II began. A rather sexist conclusion was drawn as women were deemed detail-oriented with petite hands. Because of this notion, women were assigned to calculate endless equations on the Friden calculator.

This unit resembled a typewriter and allowed users the ability to solve mathematical equations mechanically. Ironically, the women working in these departments were called “computers”. Since segregation was still a major part of American society, African American computers were assigned to work in a separate area from their White colleagues.

Mary Jackson- Never Taking No for An Answer

Mary Jackson. Photo Source: NASA

Women of color not only had to fight for racial equality, they also had to overcome challenges associated with gender bias. Sound familiar? Women who calculated the same crucial trajectories as men were offered less wage and minimal acknowledgment. Further, the path to becoming an engineer was easier for men as they were readily accepted into universities and programs.

Mary Jackson. Image Source: NASA

For Mary Jackson, the word no meant, try harder. From a young age, she strived to implement a love for science in her community. Her philanthropic efforts in her community weren’t left unnoticed. She taught STEM-related projects to young African American boys and girls at a local recreational center. Her goal was to introduce science, math, and engineering in an interactive way.

By making it fun, she knew the children would eventually be drawn to careers in the science realm. When interviewed, she quoted “Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”

Image Source: NASA

Like her counterpart Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson began her career at NASA as a computer. Engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki took notice of her ability and asked Jackson to work with him on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. This system was special as it catapulted objects into space at record speed.

Mary Jackson with the rest of the Pressure Tunnel staff. Image Source: NASA

Her popular quote in the movie, Hidden Figures accurately sums up the struggle for gender equality in the workforce. When conversing with Czarnecki he asked, “Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” Spunky, and full of life, Jackson replied, “I wouldn’t have to, I’d already been one.” That iconic conversation motivated Jackson to further her education at the University of Virginia.

The caveat to this endeavor was that Jackson was a Black woman seeking to take classes amongst all white men. The odds were against her because, at the time, the likelihood of a Black woman being allowed to enter the segregated program was slim to none.

After gaining legal permission, she enrolled in the training and finished the program with flying colors. She made history with her endeavor by becoming the first African American woman to earn the engineering position at NASA.

Among her, countless accolades were the Apollo Group Achievement Award, Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, and Langley’s Volunteer of the Year. Her primary focus was to ensure that future generations would have an interest in science as well as an opportunity to pursue it as a career.

Dorothy Vaughan- Taking the Lead at NASA

Dorothy Vaughan was a former math teacher who, after Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 was instilled, became a computer at NASA. She sought a higher position that would allow her to be a supervisor. Despite racial and gender tensions, Vaughan fought her way to the top. In 1949, she became the first African-American supervisor.

She oversaw the production of technical writing and developed a manual that made calculating machines easier to use. Her take-charge attitude allowed her to assist her fellow colleagues in reaching their career dreams. Without her relentless support, the fight for racial and gender equality in NASA would have gone unnoticed.

The sensationalization surrounding the work of these women is noteworthy. Their contributions to STEM created opportunities of hope for science lovers. Although their participation was adapted into an award-winning film, there are other nameless women of NASA who deserve recognition as well.

Miriam Mann. Image Source: NASA

Some influential computers were Barbara Holley, Miriam Mann; amongst the first African American women hired by NASA, Eunice Smith, Kathryn Peddrew, and Sue Wilder. The need for more African-American women in STEM-related fields is immense. Unfortunately, out of the 24% percent of women in science, only 2% are African-American.

The determining factors are vast as many black women still face discrimination in education and the workplace. The availability of science and math to predominately African-American communities is starkly lower than that of predominantly White communities. The example of iconic women like Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary being portrayed on the big screen may be the motivational boost to get more women of color interested in revolutionizing the world.

Hidden Figures

Katherine G. Johnson meets Octavia Spencer from ‘Hidden Figures’. Image Source: Robert Sullivan on Flickr

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.

Langley Research Center. Image Source: NASA

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.

Mary Jackson. Source: NASA

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.

Katherine Johnson was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of African-American women who worked as “computers” for NASA and its predecessor in the 1950s through the 1970s. A skilled mathematician, she was called upon by John Glenn to verify calculations before the launch of his Friendship 7 spacecraft in February 1962. Image: NASA

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.

Katherine Johnson receives an award. Image Source: Robert Sullivan on Flickr

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.

Katherine Johnson was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama in November 2015 in recognition of her work, and the work of women like her, in helping launch the first Americans into space in the 1960s. Image: NASA

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.”

In May 2016, NASA announced it would name the new 40,000-square-foot research facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for Katherine Johnson, one of the previously unheralded African American women “computers” who ran complex calculations that helped launch Americans into space. Image: NASA

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.”

Left to right: Dorothy Vaughan, Leslie Hunter, Vivian Adair. Dozens others worked as “computers” for NASA in the 1950s and beyond, using their math and science skills in the early days of the space program. Image: awardsdaily.com

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.”

Taraji B. Henson, who portrays Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, checks out Cape Canaveral. Image Source: NASA

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.”

The cast of Hidden Figures, including Pharell Williams, at the Kennedy Space Center. Image Source: NASA

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.”

The women would have to walk up to half a mile to find a restroom they could use – remember, bathrooms were segregated by race in the 1960s in the United States. Image: hiddenfigures.com

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.

Image Source: NASA

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.

Margo Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures,” published in September 2016, served as the basis for the film of the same name, released in January 2017 to much critical and commercial acclaim and success.

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.”

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