NASA recently invited one of our meteorologists to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to meet up with cast members from the new motion picture, Hidden Figures. We also had the opportunity to watch the film in its entirety prior to the January 6 national release.
Hidden Figures is a new film that celebrates the contributions made by African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who, while working in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, helped NASA catch up to the Russians in the Space Race in the early 1960s. Using their calculations, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of the Earth on February 20, 1962.
The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Janelle Monáe plays the role of Mary Jackson, who as an aerospace engineer, worked to analyze data from wind tunnel experiments at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division at Langley. Octavia Spencer plays the role of early computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan who climbs responsibilities at Langley’s computing department even though the Virginia-based center was segregated. Other actors in the film include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, all who take on various roles in NASA’s early days.
When one thinks of NASA’s adventures into space, to the moon, and beyond, often high-tech gadgetry and awesome computing power come to mind. Rarely does one think of the human power involved in these missions to leave Earth, especially in an era decades before personal computers and smartphones. In this powerful motion picture, Hidden Figures not only reveals the hidden humans in the mix with these missions, but their plight against backwards social mores that frustratingly held back humans that wanted to push humankind forward. Set against the backdrop of a segregated South in which women were treated as second class citizens and African American women thought of as even less, brilliant performances by Henson, Monáe, and Spencer showcase what these three women really were: American heroes. Despite the ugly institutional racism that was the norm of the era there, these three women had their own societal moonshot to aim for the benefit of America and humankind in space.
“When I discovered these incredible women existed, I was saddened because there was a universal understanding when I was coming up that math and science was for boys. So I already had a low expectation of myself when it came to math and science,” said Henson. “…And so I get this script and read it and through all these obstacles they still did these amazing things; they were able to change the course of history.” Incredulously, Henson added, “And how come I don’t know that? Why didn’t we know that? I felt like a dream was stolen from me… Not one girl should feel how I felt.” “It’s just crazy,” described Henson why she wanted to play the role of Johnson in the movie.
“It’s sad, but when I first heard about this story I thought it was historical fiction,” said Spencer. “And that says we weren’t heralding the inner workings and speaking to the human minds that brought our men to space. Just knowing all of these contributions that these women made, and that the white computers who weren’t even honored, I wanted to be part of telling their story.”
“When I read the script and heard about their contributions…and what NASA did in that era to put aside the ‘isms’ -the sexism, the racism, the classism- when they realize at the end of the day, we all bleed the same color, thats when we achieve the extraordinary. And I just pray that this serves as a reminder of what we can do when we put those things aside,” says Monáe of why she participated in this motion picture production and what she hopes the message of the film will teach those that watch it.
The masterfully executed film should serve as a reminder to anyone at anytime that gender and race shouldn’t be an obstacle for people pursuing their dreams and passions. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) pioneers who broke through a period in which society expected African Americans and women not to achieve much.
Pharrell Williams served as Producer on the film; he also wrote original songs for the movie and handled the soundtrack of the film. We asked Pharrell who he finds inspirational today as it relates to the STEM world. Williams responded, “Dava (Newman), who runs JPL -she’s on another level. Elon Musk –I feel like he’s a savior for this mission in many ways. …I’m very excited about these individuals that recognize the importance of space. Just like these three African American female protagonists in the 1960’s; they recognized that math was going to be integral to making advancement in space. And we all know any advancement in space is an advancement for our species and we need more people like that.”
The motion picture is based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly’s father was an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center while her mother who was a professor of English at Hampton University. “I guess it’s inevitable that I would become somebody who would write about scientists,” she said. “Really, the importance of what I’m doing, I think, is to put the stories of these women on the historical record so that we can all celebrate the foundational work that they did,” she said. “The reason these women are able to be in the positions they are and influencing the policy and the science that’s being done at NASA today has very much to do with the female pioneers who came to NASA, and to its predecessor the NACA, back in the 1930s, the 1940s, through the 1950s and ’60s.”
The first woman to break the gender barrier at NASA Langley — or what was then known as the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory — was Pearl Young. She came to Langley in 1922 as an engineer, and eventually became the chief technical editor for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. An even bigger door opened in 1935 when a group of five women came to the center to form a computer pool. The idea was for these women to process all the data coming in from wind tunnel tests and flight tests. It began as an experiment, but became something much bigger. “This turned out to be such an amazing thing that the numbers (of women) started to grow here,” Shetterly said. By 1942, the human computers had become essential to operations at the center. Langley also began recruiting African-American women as human computers in the 1940s, but due to segregation laws these “West Area Computers” were kept separate from their white counterparts. This began to change in the 1950s. Katherine Johnson joined the West Area Computers in 1953, but spent only a few weeks there. By 1958 she had become an aerospace technologist and eventually joined the Space Task Force, where she calculated trajectories for some of the Mercury missions, including MA-6, John Glenn’s first U.S. orbital flight. A bit wary of the calculations coming from the actual physical computers of the time, Glenn famously said, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” He was referring to Johnson.
“This is a really strong example of how women rise to the occasion in a very high pressure scientific endeavor,” Shetterly said. “All eyes on this man as he’s going into space and this is the woman who stood behind the man and checked the numbers. You can’t have a better example of what women are capable of doing in a scientific organization.” Johnson was one of several women who worked their way out of the computer pool and into actual engineering jobs — something that began happening with increasing frequency through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
That’s important in a culture that, according to Shetterly, still has the lingering perception, from both men and women, that women aren’t as capable as men of doing technical, rigorous scientific work. Shetterly is afraid that can’t-do attitude will drive young girls away from a growing STEM workforce, and she hopes to counter it by telling stories like Johnson’s and Darden’s.
The motion picture Hidden Figures opens nationally on January 6, 2017; it is rated PG and has a running time of 126 minutes.