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Hidden Figures: Behind the Numbers

Hidden Firgures movie poster (Left: Mary Jackson, Centre: Katherine Johnson, Right: Dorothy Vaughan)

Image Credit: Twitter

Hidden figures is the story of three African-American female Mathematicians who worked for NASA and contributed to American winning the great space race.

Most of us would have heard about the astronaut John Herschel Glenn Jr. I mean he was the first American to orbit the Earth, circling it threes time, so he is pretty much a big deal! However the story of how this operation was put together involving the brains of three African-American women working at NASA isn't as well known; that is until now.

A film called Hidden Figures has been released to the world. Hidden Figures tells an incredible story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were all African-American women, and mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA helping America to win the space race in the 1960’s. These three extraordinary women managed to cross all gender and racial lines to inspire future generations like myself to dream big. It just goes to show anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

So who are these women and why are we only finding out about them now?

Katherine Johnson showed a talent for mathematics from an early age, to the point you could say that she was somewhat of a child prodigy. She came from a small town known as White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia. She attended high school in Institute, West Virginia at the age of 13 and graduated at the tender age 14. Johnson attended West Virginia State College at the age of 18 where she undertook every Mathematics course offered. In 1937, Johnson graduated with the highest honours in degrees in Mathematics & French.

Dorothy Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1910. Her family then moved to Morgantown, West Virginia where she completed high school and graduated with a BA in Mathematics from the historical black College, Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1929, at the age of 19. Then, until 1943, Vaughan alternated between being a teacher and a housewife.

Mary Jackson was born on 9 April 1921 and lived in an area with all black schools in Hampton, Virginia. She completed high school with high honours in 1937 before attending the Hamptons Institute where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science in 1942. After her graduation she became a Mathematics teacher in Calvert County at a black school.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were part of a team in NASA, formerly known as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), made up of mainly women known as ‘human computers’. This team would calculate, by hand, complex mathematical equations that would lead the way for astronomers to travel into space.

Katherine was offered a job at NACA in 1953, assigned to Dorothy Vaughan’s group - the West Area Computers Group. Due to Katherine’s knowledge in analytic geometry she was temporarily assigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division which consisted of all males. Katherine’s knowledge made her an essential part of the team, so much so that her bosses basically just forgot to send her back to her original team! Katherine became an Aerospace Technologist where she would calculate the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space on May 5 1961. She also calculated the launch window for Shepard’s Mercury mission in 1961.

NACA decided to use electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. However before John Glenn’s flight abroad Friendship 7, he refused to fly unless Katherine was able to recheck and verify the calculations generated by the new electronic computers. So Katherine Johnson, a black woman in a segregated period, was one of the key parts of John Glenn’s successful missions.

Although I feel that Katherine Johnson was the main character in the film Hidden Figures also follows the trajectories of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson as they too worked on the Friendship 7 launch.

In 1943 Dorothy Vaughan was hired by the NACA. Dorothy was responsible for calculating mathematical computations for engineers conducting aeronautical experiments in wind tunnels on the variables effecting drags and lift of aircraft. In 1949 Dorothy was made acting head of the West Area Computers Group. The previous supervisor was a white lady who had died. This made Dorothy the first black supervisor at NACA and one of the very few female supervisors in the whole organisation. She served for years as acting head before finally being promoted to the official position as supervisor.

Noticing that electronic computers were going to be the future once NASA decided to introduce the first digital computers to the centre, Dorothy became skillful in computer programming, teaching herself and her colleagues the FORTRAN programming language as preparation for the IBM 704 mainframe computers that NASA was installing. She became an expert programmer and contributed to the space program through the work she did on the Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test Launch Vehicle Program. During the last decade of her career she worked closely with Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson to help with the launch of John Glenn.

In 1951 Mary Jackson applied for a job at NACA, where she was recruited onto the West Area Computing Team working under the watchful eye of Dorothy Vaughan as a human computer. Mary started to feel unhappy about her treatment in relation to her white colleagues and was about to resign when she was offered to work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel for the engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki who encouraged her to train to become an engineer. Mary started taking graduate night school courses in maths and physics taught at the all-white Hampton High School at the University of Virginia, where she had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the courses. Mary successfully completed her courses and was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958. This made her NASA’s first ever African-American female engineer. Mary worked as an engineer in several NASA divisions and achieved the most senior ranking within the engineering department. She spent most of her career authoring and co-authoring 12 technical papers and helped minorities to advance in their careers. This is where she realised how much she wanted to help and support minorities so she decided to take a demotion in order to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field.

The story of these 3 women has been a long time coming and I for one feel I am able to follow my dreams and reach for the stars no matter what challenges may cross my path.
I became interested in the space industry from the age of 8 when I first learnt about the solar system and planets. It opened my eyes to learn that there was more to life than just us and the planet we live on. My interest quickly grew into a passion, with the support of my physics teacher and from then I knew I wanted to make a career out of it. I’ve had my own struggles getting into the industry. Not so much about me being a Black-British girl, but more to do with my mental health being a bit of a barrier for me. However after seeing this film I have realised I may have a long way to go but I will get there in the end.
Before the film came out I had heard about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, but I didn’t know how big an impact they had made on the space industry.

Although a lot has changed since then, segregation is still a concern that is frequently around us today, not only for ethnic minorities but all different areas of diversity like gender and those in the LGBT communities. Hidden Figures moves away from a one size fits all type of film and shows itself to be the type of film where everything and everyone can work together. This is what we need around in the 21st century and I hope there will be plenty more to come.


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