Few accomplishments in American history have been as celebrated as the nation’s space program and those first soaringly idealistic journeys to take humankind into the cosmos we’d contemplated since history’s dawn. President Kennedy has been hailed for galvanizing the country to dream big; the astronauts who flew the perilous early flights into the unknown have become icons; and the meticulous male NASA engineers at mission control have been lauded for their grit and tenacity under pressure.
Yet there remain unsung and unlikely heroes of the space race – particularly, a team of female mathematicians who blazed multiple trails, trails towards greater diversity in science, equality in America, for human mathematical achievement and to launch John Glenn into mesmerizing orbit at more than17, 000 miles per hour as he circled three times around the globe in space.
It was a time in the country when opportunities could seem unjustly limited – that was true if you were a woman, if you were African-American, and especially if you were an African-American woman. Yet these dazzlingly smart NASA women flouted the limitations without fanfare, redefining the entire idea of what was possible – and who is vital to the nation -- by proving themselves absolutely essential to America’s future.
For Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the chance to use their knowledge, passion and skills opened up just as the demands of World War II were shifting the nation’s social fabric. On the factory front, women were suddenly invited to become Rosie the Riveters. Less famously, the same thing was happening in science and math. Faced with a daunting shortage of male scientists and mathematicians and with new laws prohibiting racial discrimination, defense contractors and Federal Agencies began seeking out women and African-Americans with the skills to keep pushing essential research onwards.
Director Theodore Melfi explains: “For NASA, at that moment in time, brains were more important than race or sex. These were brilliant women who could do the math they needed, who were hungry for a chance, who really wanted the opportunity to change their lives – so who else were they going to turn to?”
At the Langley Memorial Research Lab in Hampton, Virginia – run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, or NACA, a precursor to NASA -- the search was on for luminous minds from nonconventional backgrounds. They needed gifted people to serve as “human computers” – that is those rare people with the grey matter to complete rapid-fire, advanced calculations in their minds, before we had digital super computers that could precisely plot out rocket trajectories and re-entry paths.
The stakes felt high to all Americans. In 1958, the Soviet Union launched their pioneering Sputnik satellite with a bang – claiming they now had the superior edge in the raging Cold War between the two nations. This catapulted the space race into the number one U.S. priority and preoccupation. Millions watched the race unfold, hoping America would be able to prove its strength as a society by beating the Russians into orbit and all the way to the moon. In a time when fear of a hot, civilization-annihilating nuclear war was at a high, the space race became an alternate path for the USSR and the U.S. to compete no holds barred. Both nations saw it as a chance to prove their system had the greater potential, as well as to reap new military and intelligence-gathering benefits, and become the first country to establish a sphere of influence beyond our globe. By 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for President on an inspiring platform of closing the gap in the space race and taking the lead with American ingenuity.
Recalls Katherine G. Johnson of Sputnik: “All our engineers were mad somebody else did it first. But what most people didn’t know was that we were right behind the Russians and we were ready.”
It was in this context, that NACA became NASA and all of its scientists and mathematicians, including the “human computers,” shifted into the space program at high velocity.
Despite the Jim Crow laws still undermining equality and human rights in Virginia, Langley hired an entirely female team of these “human computers,” a number of whom were African American math teachers. They remained segregated, with black women eating in separate quarters and working apart in a remote division known as West Computing. They were paid less than their white counterparts. Yet, their extraordinary work rose above – and ultimately so won over the men in their midst that they became utterly indispensible to the boldest mission yet: putting John Glenn into full orbit around earth.
Even before NASA saw their untapped genius, these were astonishingly special women:
As special as they were, the women took their accomplishments in stride. For Johnson, it seemed normal to possess extraordinary math skills, because they came to her organically from a very young age. “Almost as soon as I was born, I loved to count things,” she remembers. “I was always counting the stairs, and we had a lot of stairs so I got a lot of experience. I saw that counting was a way to understand things better, to see what things were and what they meant.”
Even at NASA, Johnson felt driven first and foremost by her curiosity about the world, and never drew attention to herself as a heroine. “I approached it as: if someone asked me to solve a problem, I did it,” she states matter-of-factly. “But I always wanted to know more about the importance of what we were doing. If we were doing a calculation, I wanted to know: What is this for? Why is it vital?”
As for leading a triple life as a mother raising children, an African American woman navigating Jim Crow laws and as a major asset for NASA, Johnson says she never felt she wasn’t up to the task. “A woman can always outdo a man in managing multiple things at once, so it was no problem,” she muses. “And at NASA, we were all working toward the same goal, whether we knew it or not.”
It stunned author and executive producer Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father worked at NASA, that these women remained relatively unknown. Shetterly wrote her novel Hidden Figures based on oral interviews, extensive research and archival information, chronicling how the women of West Computing met the challenges that faced them with grace and optimism, forged alliances that helped them gain respect and aided one another to change their own lives even as they were changing the country and technology forever. She also founded the Human Computer Project, which has received two grants from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, an organization dedicated to archiving the work of all the women who contributed to the early history of NASA.
She was especially moved by how the women themselves downplayed what they faced. Says Shetterly: “These women were hidden in plain sight in a way. They felt they had a chance to do jobs they loved – and they loved this challenging math -- so they didn’t draw attention to themselves.”
But now is the time to draw attention to these women, Shetterly believes. “In the past, we’ve been blind-sighted about women in technology,” she comments. “We have this image of what an astronaut or a scientist looks like, and since these women did not fit the profile, historians often looked past them.”
Shetterly set out to give the women their full due in her book. One thing Shetterly wanted to get across is how much these women could do with pencils and sheer brainpower. “There's more computing power in a toaster today than was available in the 1960s,” laughs Shetterly, “yet we were able to send a man into space, then to the moon. That is because raw computing power came from these women.”
Especially inspiring to Shetterly was how the women navigated clashing realities – as high-level minds on the one hand and as African Americans confronted with daily institutional bias on the other. “It must have been something to be so into your work, so fascinated by these big mathematical problems -- and then you have to go use the ‘colored bathroom,’” she muses. “Then you come back and still have to hold your head high, despite having your status as a second-class citizen pointed out again and again.”
Bonding closely together helped the women find strength, says Shetterly. “They were a band of sisters. They knew they had to support each other and they encouraged each other to give 150% because they also knew they were going to be scrutinized in a different way. I think they saw they had a rare chance to open doors to other black women in a future that would be different,” she concludes.
Now, there has been a burst of fascination with NASA’s women, especially as efforts to recruit more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields take off. “A number of people did historical work and published articles in the past,” notes the film’s NASA consultant Bill Barry. “But it didn’t catch on with the public imagination until now. Now there’s a growing interest now in how we can really encourage women to follow their passions in science, engineering and math.”
When the manuscript crossed Academy Award®-winning producer Donna Gigliotti’s desk, she too was shaken by the women’s hidden status and stirred by all they had accomplished at a time when their achievements went unrecognized. “We develop a lot of material – but this story was so unique,” says Gigliotti. “It’s a part of history that needed to be heard, and I knew this was a movie I had to make.”