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The True Story of the Brilliant Black Women at NASA From ‘Hidden Figures’

Science By
HAMPTON, VA - JANUARY 7: Mathmatician Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA poses for a photo at work at NASA Langley Research Center on January 7, 1980 in Hampton, Virginia. (Photo by Bob Nye/NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Mathematician Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA featured in the film ‘Hidden Figures,’ at NASA Langley Research Center on January 7, 1980, in Hampton, Virginia. (Bob Nye/NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

 

The recent passing of astronaut John Glenn has inspired much reminiscing about the remarkable days when NASA proved man could break free of the Earth’s bonds. It’s also a superb time to learn about a chapter of this tale that has been surprisingly unknown. Quite simply, space exploration wouldn’t have been possible without remarkable black women who served as human “computers.” Now their story is at last being told, thanks to the motion picture Hidden Figures and the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Indeed, Shetterly herself only began to appreciate the story around 2010. This is despite growing up near NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and having a mix of neighbors and relatives work at NASA, including her own father. She says she knew women, including black women, were at NASA, but “didn’t know exactly what they did.”

Quite simply, these women were essential to the math that made space travel possible. They include Mary Jackson (pictured above), who may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the 1950s. Then there is mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in the film, who “calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission” in 1962. There’s also Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, who was NASA’s first African-American supervisor.

Actress Janelle Monáe, who plays Mary Jackson, admits that she had “no idea” of their story before reading the script. She sums up the importance of their contribution:

“These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.”

To read more, click here. To get a copy of the book, click here. Spend some time with Johnson in the video below (she’s still alive at 98). At the bottom, watch the trailer for Hidden Figures, which goes into limited release on Christmas before opening wide in January.