1962 - The True Story of 'Hidden Figures'
There's a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn's upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford's response is dismissive—"There's no protocol for women attending." Johnson replies, "There's no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir."
The quote underlines this based-on-a-true-story movie. For NASA to get John Glenn into space and home safely, institutions that supported prejudices and biases needed to start tumbling down. All hands (and brains) had to be on deck.
Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film focuses on three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were part of NASA's team of human "computers." This was a group made up of mostly women who calculated by hand the complex equations that allowed space heroes like Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and Glenn to travel safely to space. Through sheer tenacity, force of will, and intellect, they ensured their stamp on American history—even if their story has remained obscured from public view until now.
Editor's note: After we published this story on Dec. 21, 2016 Hidden Figures was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It didn't win those categories, but did take home Best Movie at the BET Awards, Outstanding Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards, Best Action or Adventure Film at the Saturn Awards, and other accolades.
"A Large Capacity for Tedium"
Women working as so-called "human computers" dates back decades before space exploration. In the late 19th century, the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel's book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions. Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs. While working six-day weeks at a job demanding "a large capacity for tedium," they were still expected to uphold societal norms of being a good wife and mother.
In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) hired five women to be their first computer pool at the Langley campus. "The women were meticulous and accurate... and they didn't have to pay them very much," NASA's historian Bill Barry says, explaining the NACA's decision. In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. First he issued Executive Order 8802, which banned "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin" (though it does not include gender). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NACA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers.
While they did the same work as their white counterparts, African-American computers were paid less and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. They became known as the "West Computers." Despite having the same education, they had to retake college courses they had already passed and were often never considered for promotions or other jobs within NACA. Hidden Figures depicts this in a scene in which "computer" Mary Jackson is asked if she's want to be an engineer if she were a white man. Jackson responds, "I wouldn't have too. I would already be one."
Katherine Johnson, the movie's protagonist, was something of a child prodigy. Hailing from the small West Virginian town of White Sulphur Springs, she graduated from high school at 14 and the historically black West Virginia State University at 18. In 1938, as a graduate student, she became one of three students—and the only woman—to desegregate West Virginia's state college. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA thanks to the Space Act of 1958.
The movie muddies the timeline a bit, but Johnson's first big NASA assignment was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard's historic flight in 1961. Johnson and her team's job was to trace out in extreme detail Freedom 7's exact path from liftoff to splashdown. Since it was designed to be a ballistic flight—in that, it was like a bullet from a gun with a capsule going up and coming down in a big parabola—it was relatively simple in least in the context of what was to come. Nonetheless, it was a huge success and NASA immediately set their sights on America's first orbital mission.
"GET THE GIRL TO CHECK THE NUMBERS... IF SHE SAYS THE NUMBERS ARE GOOD, I'M READY TO GO."
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn's 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson's main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to "get the girl to check the numbers... If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go."
While Johnson is the main character, Hidden Figures also follows the trajectories of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson as they work on the Friendship Seven blast-off. Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was one of NACA's early computer hires during World War II. She became a leader and advocate for the "West Computers." In 1948, she became NACA's first black supervisorand, later, an expert FORTRAN programmer.
Despite these successes and her capability, she was constantly passed over for promotions herself. As Spencer tells Popular Mechanics, Vaughan struggled with the same things all female computers did while at NASA. "The conflict of working outside of the home to provide the best life for your children and, yet, not physically being there. But she knew she was changing the world."
While Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is also considered a "hidden figure," she certainly stood out during her time at NASA. After graduating with dual degrees in math and physical science, she was hired to work at Langley in 1951. After several years as a computer, Jackson took an assignment in assisting senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki and he encouraged her to become an engineer herself. To do that, however, she needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA's first African-American female engineer—and, perhaps, the only one for much of her career.
While these three women's stories remain front and center, John Glenn's recent death makes this film particularly timely. Featured prominently, Glenn is depicted as a goal-oriented, joke-making, tension-cutting, folksy, equal opportunist. According to Barry, that's pretty much exactly how he was.
"Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity," says Berry, "Glenn was in a, classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person."
Barry also notes that there's an "easter egg" in the film that most people who aren't deep into NASA history will not catch. There's a short scene where Glenn is talking to reporters, and beside him there's a woman—Cece Bibby—painting the Friendship Seven logo onto the spacecraft. The true story is that NASA officials originally did not allow Bibby access to the launch pad, but Glenn intervened and insisted that his artist be allowed to do her job.
Another Day's Work
There's no way a two-hour movie could tell the full story of these women; Shetterly's book paints a much fuller picture. But Hidden Figures highlights NASA's (relatively) progressive attitude for the time, driven in large part by necessity. This happens literally in the film, when the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) destroys the "colored ladies room" bathroom sign. As Shetterly says to Popular Mechanics, the movie also focuses on Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn's "transcendent sense of humanity" that allowed them to endure.
Johnson would go on to work on the Apollo program, too, including performing trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing. She would retire from NASA in 1986. In 2015, President Obama gave Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last May, a NASA computational research facility in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia was named in Johnson's honor. And yet, despite the accolades and getting the Hollywood treatment, she told the audience in May that she was just doing her job and "it was just another day's work."
Sometimes changing the world is just that.