There’s a movie that was released at Christmas — Hidden Figures. It could have waited until Feb. 1 and the start of Black History Month or March 1 and the start of Women’s History Month. It could very well be the poster film for either of those months..
I had never heard of Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) or Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaen). I doubt if many other people had either. They were not household names in the African-American nor women’s rights struggle. They were truly “hidden figures” at NASA, fighting racial and gender issues in a male world in segregated Virginia in the early 60s.
The storyline surrounds these three women and how they advanced themselves despite the times. Johnson was a mathematician who “saw” beyond the raw numbers. Vaughan became an IBM guru — on her own time — figuring out how the room-sized mainframe worked, learning its language — fortran — and teaching it to her colored cadre of women. Jackson clawed her way to earn an engineering degree — at an all-white school at night.
The three shared the billing and their contributions during the space race that put John Glenn into orbit and moved the United States forward in it space challenge with Russia. And it was all done tastefully respecting the challenges the women faced. It made no political statements but let those struggles shine through their lives.
As NASA prepared for the orbital mission of Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, FL, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”– Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Glenn said, “then I’m ready to go.”
Johnson also was key with the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. In 2015, at age 97, Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
In 1949, Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare Laboratory-wide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known (white) computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.
Vaughan led the segregated West Area Computing Unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians for nearly a decade. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Vaughan and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division, a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Vaughan became an expert fortran programmer and contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program. She retired from NASA in 1971.
Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity, Iin the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. As the years progressed, the promotions slowed, and she became frustrated at her inability to break into management-level grades. In 1979, seeing the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.
Sometimes, it takes protests to raise awareness. But this film is a classic example of walking the walk having a bigger impact.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: When you place your trust in God, He will accelerate His plan for your life. You will accomplish your dreams faster than you thought possible.