Hidden Figures

I’m a huge nerd for anything about space programs and the movie Hidden Figures coming out this week was sure to catch my attention. I decided to take some time and see what I could learn about the three woman whose stories are told in the film.

Well before Sputnik launched and the US got serious about space, NASA was known the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In the early 1940s, the US was working hard to understand how you break the sound barrier and the necessary math was increasing at what can only reasonably be called an astronomical rate. Facing the same availability crisis of white men as everyone else with WWII going on and with some gentle prodding by Franklin Roosevelt who signed Executive Order 8802  in 1941; the first federal action to promote equal opportunity in the US by prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry; the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory finally started opening up positions for black women in 1943.

Dorothy Vaughan left her job at a nearby high school to be among the first black women to be a computer at Langley. At that time, the technology we call a computer was only just being defined, and so the word was used to describe the people who computed the endless amounts of algebra and geometry necessary to do rocket science by hand. Of course, being 1943, equal opportunity still meant separate but equal opportunity; and so Dorothy was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit with separate facilities. At this time, equal mean that while the white women had full accommodations, Dorothy and the other computers not only worked and dined separately, she was not even given housing and the facilities didn’t include a toilet. 

Despite these conditions, these women became intricate to every area of research on campus. By 1949 Dorothy had become the first black supervisor with the NACA granting her rare Laboratory-wide visibility, allowing her to collaborate closely with the white women. Together one can reasonably say they wrote the book on how computers do algebra. In 1958, when NASA was officially created and finally abolished the segregated environment, she helped write the code which ran the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program, which successfullylaunched an astounding 96% of 118 different 385-pound satellites into a 500-mile orbits.

Dorothy was not only excellent at her work, she also had a terrific eye for talent and was known to speak on behalf of any woman she felt deserved promotions or higher wages. One such woman was Mary Jackson who joined Dorothy’s team in 1951 and by 1953 had earned a position working directly with the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. On top of this work, she attended night classes at the University of Virginia and in 1958 she was officially promoted as the first female black engineer of the newly minted NASA. There she continued to be a preeminent expert in the field of aeronautical engineering for decades.

Katherine Johnson joined the West Area Computers in 1953 and quickly became known for her incessant questions. One such question was why women weren’t attending the programmers meetings, and when no one had a good answer she jumped on the opportunity. A few weeks later, the programmers had become so reliant on her ability that they pulled her out of the computing pool and made her a peer, the only black woman to ever earn this opportunity. There should would play a vital role getting an American into space as fast as humanly possible on assignment with the Space Task Force.

Since Kerbel Space Program didn’t exist, Katherine was one of the only people on the planet to have any understanding of orbital dynamics. NASA had specific desires about where the capsule should land in the ocean and so she worked backwards and figured out by hand and slide rule exactly when they needed to launch so that the turning of the earth combined with the trajectory of the rocket would achieve their goals. Understandably impressed by this display, when John Glenn was asked to become the first American to orbit earth, he first required all the computations run by these new computers were double checked by Katherine. Only after she gave the thumbs up did he blast off. 

Satisfied with her achievements, Katherine decided to settle down and calculate the trajectory necessary for Apollo 11 to successfully land on the moon. Again, this woman was able to determine the exact flight path for a rocket to leave a rotating planet and travel 250 thousand miles to the moon, swing around that a couple times and launch a separate space craft to land at a specific spot on the moon.

These women redefine incredible and I am so fortunate to have gotten to read up on their stories. Each of them stayed with Langley for decades, none of them receiving further promotions despite these absurd accomplishments. Dorothy retired in frustration with the situation in 1971. In 1979 Mary seeing her peers struggle to advance as much as she was, took a demotion to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists. Retiring in 1985, Mary passed away in 2005 and Dorthy in 2008 neither ever living to see their accomplishments recognized.

Katherine, fortunately, has been kind enough to hang on to be 97 years old and in 2015 she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The movie should be hitting a theater near you any day now and we can only hope it pays these spectacular achievements some justice.