When it comes to America’s dominance in space, the role of Black female scientists has been tragically neglected by history. All of that will soon change with the release of the new 20th Century Fox movie Hidden Figures, which tells the tale of three Black women to whom America should be eternally grateful.
The movie includes Taraji P. Henson who portrays NASA scientist Katherine Johnson who worked on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. It was her job to verify complex mathematical calculations for astronaut John Glenn’s first orbital flight. She was a highly regarded expert known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation. Johnson also played a critical role in working on the plan that saved astronauts during the Apollo 13 mission. During the ill-fated 1970 Apollo 13 mission, a fire in the space capsule crippled multiple systems and almost resulted in the loss of astronauts James A. Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Halse. Because of the loss of telemetry controls, Johnson had to work out the mathematical equations for the flight path and re-entry that were given to the astronauts to bring them safely back to Earth. On Nov. 16, 2015, President Barack Obama included Johnson on a list of 17 Americans to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Singer Janelle Monee portrays aerospace engineer Mary Jackson. Jackson pushed for more minority engineers to work at NASA. She started her career in 1951 during the early days of NASA and specialized in understanding thrust and drag forces. She worked at NASA for 34 years and reached the highest level of an engineer that was possible without becoming a supervisor.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer portrays mathematician Dorothy Vaughan. In 1949, Vaughn led a team known as the West Area Computers who were all-Black female team of mathematicians. While at NASA she specialized in electronic computing and FORTRAN programming. She worked in the Langley Research Center’s Analysis and Computation Division, and also participated in Scout Project (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system) tests at Wallops Flight Facility.
These women overcame racial and gender barriers at NASA and serve as examples of the keen intelligence of Black scientists. Hidden Figures is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly and is set for release on Jan. 13, 2017.