The Hidden Figures of NASA Space
Space exploration is considered one of humankind’s best discoveries to date. However, the United States Space Program NASA could have been a failure without the backing of the Federal Government and the American people. The year is 1962, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union is just now intensifying because the Russians successfully put a man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin). Kennedy’s inspiring “Moon Speech,” delivered at Rice University in Houston, Texas laid out why the president believed sending astronauts to Earth’s nearest neighbor by the end of the 1960s was so crucial as seen in Figure 1. A challenge like this is only achievable through modern engineering and mathematical calculations that the engineers at NASA had to take on first hand.
President John F. Kennedy “Moon Speech”
The president reaffirmed the nations desire to go to the Moon by delivering this powerful speech as people tuned in across the world. “We choose to go to the moon,” the president said (Logsdon, 2010). “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Also because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too” (Logsdon, 2010). President Kennedy’s dream came true, of course. “On July 20, 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface and said, “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (Barbree, 2014). “Four days later, he and his two Apollo 11 crewmates splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, wrapping up a huge victory for the United States over the Soviets in the Cold War space race” (Wall, 2012). Before any American dreamed of walking on the Moon, there were people back in Cape Canaveral, Florida working on the calculations to make space exploration even possible.
Many people know the famous names of NASA astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and John Glenn, but does anyone know Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson? These three African American women served as the brains behind one of the most significant operations in NASA history with the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Their hard work and dedication to the space program restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race in America’s favor, and took the world by storm with their passion for exploring the Milky Way Galaxy. The movie Hidden Figures tells their story at NASA and the pivotal discoveries they made in the lab to get the United States to the Moon by the end of the 1960’s as challenged by President Kennedy. “The film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers who were part of NASA’s team of human “computers” (Blitz, 2017). “This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and Glenn to travel safely to space” (Blitz, 2017).
What is even more astounding being that the three women Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to work at NASA during the Jim Crow Law era of the United States as seen in Figure Two. “While they did the same work as their white counterparts, African-American computers were paid less and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities” (Blitz, 2017). “Despite having the same education, they had to retake college courses they had already passed and were often never considered for promotions or other jobs within NASA” (Blitz, 2017). As asked during an NBC News interview: “How surprised do you think people were to see a black woman who did all the math to make all these missions possible” (Ellis, 2016)? Charles Bolden president of NASA replied, “Shocked, shocked, you got to remember, now when she walked in the control center, she was the only black in there. So, quite naturally, they thought she was a maid” (Ellis, 2016).
From Left to Right
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson
Katherine Johnson’s first well known NASA assignment was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s historic flight into space in 1961. “Johnson and her team’s job were to trace out in extreme detail Freedom 7’s exact path from liftoff to splashdown” (Blitz, 2017). “Since it was designed to be a ballistic flight—in that, it was like a bullet from a gun with a capsule going up and coming down in a big parabola—it was relatively simple in the least in the context of what was to come” (Blitz, 2017). However, this mission was a huge success, and NASA immediately set their sights on America’s first orbital mission with John Glenn at the helm after the victory from Alan Sheppard’s mission to make it all possible.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic moments like all Hollywood movies like to do. However, most of the events in the film are historically accurate. “Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations” (Andrews, 2017). Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that 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, and Bermuda” (Andrews, 2017).
“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” (Andrews, 2017). “As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” (Blitz, 2017) “As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer” (Blitz, 2017). “So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers”. (Blitz, 2017) “If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.” (Blitz, 2017). John Glenn could sense the magnitude of this mission for NASA and the chance to get to the moon hinged on this mission. Since he trusted Katherine to check the calculations he felt more confident in his ability to be successful on this task orbiting around the Earth. As Katherine Johnson’s said herself in an interview with NBC News, “He knew that if I had done it, it was right plain and simple.” (Ellis, 2016). Since computers were still in its infantry with the public to make life changing decisions Glenn wanted a physical person to be his fact checker before the computer said it was possible. As Charles Bolden the head of NASA said during the NBC interview. “We would not have had a human-spaceflight program, I don’t think, had it not been for Katherine Johnson” (Ellis, 2016).
While Johnson is the main character, Hidden Figures also follows the trajectories of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson as they work on the Friendship Seven blast-off. Vaughan was one of NASA’s early computer hires during World War II. She became a leader and advocated for the “West Computers.” In 1948, she became NACA’s first black supervisor and, later, an expert FORTRAN programmer. “She learned that her group could be replaced with the installation of new IBM 7090 computers, which were designed for “large-scale scientific and technological applications” (Andrews, 2017). “Dorothy self-taught the Fortran programming language, as she expected the language to be demanded in the forthcoming years, she went on to teach the rest of the women in her unit as well” (Andrews, 2017). While Mary Jackson is also considered a “Hidden Figure,” she certainly stood out during her time at NASA. After graduating with dual degrees in math and physical science, she was hired to work at Langley in 1951. “After several years as a computer, Jackson took an assignment in assisting senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, and he encouraged her to become an engineer herself” (Andrews, 2017). “She was accepted to work on a project that concerned Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, used to study forces on a model by generating winds at almost twice the speed of sound” (Andrews, 2017). She was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer and, perhaps, the only one for much of her career. Each of these three women stood out from the crowd and was a pioneer for the NASA space program. They were role models for women and other minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If it weren’t for them, the NASA would have been a very different place to work at, and many women would find it challenging to thrive in STEM-related jobs.
In the 1960’s many women were pushed into jobs and classes that emphasized the roles of nurses, teachers, and secretarial work. Not many women went to college in the field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. All STEM jobs were male dominant, and NASA was the same way until the three pioneers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson came along to remove that bias. “According to the World Economic Forum, women earn only one-third of undergraduate stem degrees, despite accounting for 60% of college graduates” (Mitchell, 2017). As interviewed on NBC News “If you Google, “what is a programmer” (Mitchell, 2017)? “The search will see only men in these positions, so the stereotypes are all around the world” (Mitchell, 2017). Florence Tan is no stranger to be the only woman in the room at NASA. “Born in Malaysia, she came to the U.S. for college, starting at NASA in the 1980s, working on landmark missions like the famous Cassini Probe to Saturn” (Mitchell, 2017). On NBC News she was asked this question: “What is important about mentoring women from other countries” (Mitchell, 2017)? “By 2024, there will be almost a million engineering and computer science jobs” (Mitchell, 2017). There is such high demand for these job titles, and we currently don’t have enough people to do this work. “Women, are needed to fill this work shortage because this is just the national good of the world.” “Women can be an untapped source of badly needed talent, brought out of the shadows and into the labs around the world” (Mitchell, 2017). As NASA is now 60 years old, more positions are attracting diversity, not only women but also minorities as well which is a change of thinking compared to what Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson had to put up with when working at NASA when it was just founded in 1958.
In a recent interview, Katherine Johnson was asked: “What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your career as a woman in STEM?” (King, 2018). “One of the biggest challenges I have had as a woman in STEM is breaking into the “boy’s network.” (King, 2018). “For many years at NASA, and other scientific organizations the makeup has been mostly white males” (King, 2018). “Even when women bring unique solutions to the table, it can take twice as much work for them to gain the respect of their male counterparts” (King, 2018). “I can recall being in meetings and asking a question only to have the male answering the question look at the other males in the room while answering my question. Katherine was fortunate that NASA has been at the forefront of supporting women in technical fields, as shown in the movie Hidden Figures. “With the support of some of my male and female mentors, I have grown and blossomed at NASA” (King, 2018). “With all of that said, we still have a little way to go for women to have an equal seat at the table, but not only do the appropriate organizational policies need to be in place, but appropriate, respectful behavior must be the norm starting with the leadership at the top” (King, 2018).
“When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected the first women and ethnic minorities as astronaut candidates in 1978, people working at NASA probably thought they were well prepared to have a woman in the astronaut corps” (Foster, 2011). “Early in the 1970’s NASA officials from administration down had emphasized women and minorities alike would be part of the astronaut corps, specifically beginning with the Space Shuttle Program” (Foster, 2011). When the day came to name the women, who would join the astronaut corps, NASA’s hope for a smooth transition but nothing goes as planned. “One issue NASA engineers confronted was the challenge of designing equipment that both male and female astronauts could use” (Foster, 2011). “But a more important barrier to the success of integrating woman and minorities as astronauts were all employees at NASA, had to deal with the tensions inherent in the cultural biases against women and minorities in the workplace challenging the iconographic image as an Astronaut at NASA” (Foster, 2011). Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride can thank the Hidden Figures for breaking the barriers for woman and minorities being considered equals at the workplace at NASA and across all STEM-related career fields.
The impact that the three individuals had (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) is still evident today in modern society. More and more minorities and woman now are enabled to take on STEM-related courses and are considered equals inside and outside the academic environment. When NASA was founded in 1958, the space program has grown leaps and bounds from the Hidden Figures and all minorities who helped shape the agenda from off the ground floor. “At age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is America’s highest civilian honor” (King, 2018). NASA is working to keep diversity at the forefront to spur innovation still today. It is crucial to understand that it is only with the variety of thought, and skill that everyone will remain innovative and competitive in our progress of technology, science, and space exploration for the years to come.
Andrews, S. (2017, June 2). Hidden Figures: The stories of three extraordinary women from NASA. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/06/02/hidden-figures-the-stories-of-three-extraordinary-women-from-nasa-2/
Barbree, J. (2014). Neil Armstrong: a life of flight. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Retrieved from https://proxy.library.kent.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=cat02507a&AN=ohiolink.b35192629&site=eds-live&scope=site
Blitz, M. (2017, February 3). The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers/
Ellis, R. (Reporter) & Holt, L. (Anchor). (2016, December 09). The Amazing Untold Story of NASA’s Brilliant African-American Female Scientists. [Television series episode]. NBC Nightly News. Retrieved from https://highered-nbclearn-com.proxy.library.kent.edu/portal/site/HigherEd/browse?cuecard=109524
Foster, A. E. (2011). Integrating women into the astronaut corps: politics and logistics at NASA, 1972-2004. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
King, M. (2018, February 20). NASA’s Real Life ‘Hidden Figure’ On How to Advance Women In STEM. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michelleking/2018/02/20/nasas-real-life-hidden-figure-on-how-to-advance-women-in-stem/#4d1bf1e57ab9
Logsdon, J. M. (2010). John F. Kennedy and the race to the moon. [electronic resource]. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Retrieved from https://proxy.library.kent.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=cat02286a&AN=kent.b4086267&site=eds-live&scope=site
Mitchell, A. (Reporter) & Balart, J. (Anchor). (2017, October 21). “Hidden Figures” Inspires State Department Program for Women in Science. [Television series episode]. NBC Nightly News. Retrieved from https://highered-nbclearn-com.proxy.library.kent.edu/portal/site/HigherEd/browse?cuecard=113494
Shetterly, M. L. (2016, September 6). Hidden Figures – The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race [Digital image]. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm
Wall, M. (2012, September 12). JFK’s ‘Moon Speech’ Still Resonates 50 Years Later. Retrieved November 4, 2018, from https://www.space.com/17547-jfk-moon-speech-50years-anniversary.html