Racial segregation inside NASA during the 1960s didn’t hold back the aspirations of three female African-American mathematicians
23 January 2017
As the associate editor of The Institute, I couldn’t miss out on seeing the film Hidden Figures, a based-on-a-true-story movie about three female African-American mathematicians who helped launch NASA’s first successful manned mission around the Earth.
Known as Friendship 7, the mission took place on 20 February 1962, with astronaut John Glenn in the Mercury capsule becoming the first American to orbit Earth. While that’s the background against which the movie is set, the untold story is about the women who helped make the voyage possible—and the discrimination they experienced while working at the space administration’s facility in Langley, Md.
The Friendship 7 mission took place during a time when racism was still deeply seated in the United States, when bathrooms, water fountains, and classrooms were segregated. Early in the film, the main characters, called computers—a title NASA gave to employees calculating intricate math problems—were shown working in a separate room for “colored computers.” As the women, who all have mathematics degrees, move up the ranks, their colleagues’ innate racism seems to grow stronger.
The film centers around Katherine Johnson (played by actress Taraji P. Henson), a child math prodigy and the only NASA employee who was well-versed in analytical geometry at the time. The other two women are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
DISCRIMINATION AT THE AGENGY
Johnson proved herself time and again. For example, she came up with the “go–no go” mathematical formula, also known as a launch status check, to ensure the Mercury’s travel trajectories were safe. Glenn orbited the Earth three times—a trip that lasted a little less than five hours—before his spacecraft landed safely in the ocean near the Bahamas.
Johnson received little to no publicity at the time, but in 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States, for calculating and verifying trajectories that took the first Americans to space and to the moon.
While working on the Friendship 7 launch, she was shunned by her white male coworkers. She was not allowed to drink coffee out of the same carafe as them; instead, they designated a pot with a sticker that said colored. The only ladies room designated for African-Americans was a 40-minute round trip from her workplace.
Her friends Vaughan and Jackson also experienced racism.
Vaughan supervised the group of 20 black women who worked as computers. Despite her skills and hard work, NASA did not promote her. Vaughan, who also knew how to fix cars, decided to teach herself the early computer language Fortran from a programming book that she stole from a local library’s whites-only section. Armed with her knowledge of Fortran and mechanical skills, she helped NASA’s engineers program its first IBM data processing machine.
Jackson was encouraged by a NASA mission specialist—based on her real-life colleague Kazimierz Czarnecki—to become an engineer. She called the idea ludicrous. “I am a Negro woman. I am not going to consider the impossible,” she said. But the idea stayed with her.
When she looked into courses required to become a NASA engineer, she discovered they were being offered only at an all-white high school. At the time, African-Americans were not permitted to attend that school, but Johnson filed a lawsuit and persuaded a judge to let her attend. He did, but only the night courses.
All three women went on to become NASA pioneers: the first African-American woman to help launch a man into space, the first female African-American supervisor, and the first female African-American engineer.
Despite the women’s incredible accomplishments, how many of us knew their stories until Hidden Figures? I admit that I didn’t.
When, in the movie, a police officer and even a love interest (who later becomes Johnson’s husband) are shocked to learn African-American women worked as mathematicians at NASA, I realized that stereotypes of female engineers and technologists still exist today. I wonder how much has really changed for women and underrepresented groups in tech.
The Institute has published several articles about the difficulty the engineering field has in recruiting a more diverse group of candidates. I believe teaching students about the unsung heroes in Hidden Figures would be an important part of that process. It’s imperative that those who teach or volunteer their time with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education programs show the film to students to encourage them that they, too, can do seemingly impossible things.
The three women spotlighted in the movie achieved what they did at NASA not because of their circumstances—opportunities were not handed to them—but because of their merit. And that’s the message we should be teaching students today, which is that perseverance and knowledge can get them far and they should not give up because they believe a career in engineering is not for them.