Perhaps you were one of the millions people who saw Hidden Figures this past weekend, making it the number one film at the North American box office for the weekend that ended January 8, 2017. Now go deeper into the story and read the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.
The daughter of a NASA research scientist and an English professor, Margot Lee Shetterly’s first career was in investment banking. Later she transitioned from investment banking to media and entertainment. She is the founder of The Human Computer Project, the goal of which is to identify and recognize the accomplishments of all the women who worked as mathematicians, scientists, engineers at NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s. Hidden Figures is Shetterly’s first book.
Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of pioneer African-American women who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) (the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)) and helped propel astronauts John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and others into space. The film focuses on three particular women: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.
Katherine G. Johnson’s affinity for mathematics was apparent from an early age. Born in West Virginia in 1918, she began attending West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) at age fifteen and graduated three years later with degrees in mathematics and French. Mrs. Johnson began working at NACA in 1953 as computer. (At the time “computer” referred to women who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand.) She was quickly transferred from the African-American computing pool to Langley’s flight research division where among other achievements she helped calculate how to get humans into space and back. President Barack Obama honored Mrs. Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Taraji P. Henson portrays Katherine G. Johnson in the film.
Dorothy Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1910. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University in Ohio, then taught high school math for several years before beginning a nearly three-decade long career at NACA (now NASA) in 1943. Mrs. Vaughan’s NACA career began in the segregated West Area Computing group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. In 1949 she was selected to lead the group, making Mrs. Vaughan the first African-American woman to hold a supervisorial position at NACA. As NASA moved away from human computers to digital (that is, non-human) computers, Mrs. Vaughan moved too, becoming an expert in computer programming. Mrs. Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971 and passed away in 2008. In the film Hidden Figures Dorothy Vaughan is portrayed by Octavia Spencer.
Mary Winston Jackson was born in 1921 in Hampton, Virginia. After earning bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science she began working as a mathematician at NACA in 1951. Like Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, Mrs. Jackson began her NACA career in the segregated West Area Computing group. She was later offered a position working with aeronautical engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. With Czarnecki’s encouragement, Mrs. Jackson entered training program so that she could be promoted from mathematician to engineer. The training program required trainees to take graduate level math and physics classes. The classes were administered by the University of Virginia and held at the then segregated Hampton High School. Mrs. Jackson petitioned for, and won, permission from the City of Hampton to attend the same classes as her white colleagues. After finishing her program, Mrs. Jackson won her promotion and became NASA’s first African-American female engineer. She died in 2005 at the age of 83. Mrs. Jackson is portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the film.
In addition to Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book chronicles the career of Dr. Christine Darden. A mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer, Dr. Darden specialized in sonic boom research.
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