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The Real Women Behind ‘Hidden Figures’

Topics: Career Profiles

Hidden Figures is a box office hit, grossing four times its budget in a little over a month of release. It’s also raking in awards and nominations, scoring two Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and three Oscar nominations.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is that it got made at all. The story of three female African-American mathematicians who helped put John Glenn in orbit seems like it should be common knowledge — the kind of thing you’d learn about in social studies class as a kid. Instead, it went largely untold until 2016, when Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name became a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

In fact, as a recent Slate piece pointed out, the story of the space race has been largely presented as an all-white-male endeavor. It’s not even that movies like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff are dishonest about who was in the room during tense reentry scenes; it’s that popular entertainment, like history, tends to obscure the people who make things happen off-camera, so to speak. Especially if those people are Black, female, or both.

Hopefully, Hidden Figures’ runaway success will show that there’s an appetite for stories about African-American heroines who blazed a trail in STEM.

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The African-American Women Who Put John Glenn in Space

NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Katherine Johnson

Occupation: Physicist/Mathematician

Contribution to the Space Race:

Per NASA: “As a computer [a job in those days, not a machine! -ed], she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 combining her math talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.”

Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many honorary degrees.

Played By: Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures


Dorothy Vaughan
NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Dorothy Vaughan

Occupation: Mathematician

Contribution to the Space Race: “Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job,” wrote Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly at NASA.

Assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit at NACA, the precursor to NASA, Vaughan eventually became its head and NACA’s first Black supervisor. When segregated facilities were abolished in the late 1950s, Vaughan joined NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), working on the Scout Launch Vehicle and other programs.

Played By: Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures


Mary Jackson
NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Jackson

Occupation: Engineer

Contribution to the Space Race:


“Mary Jackson began her engineering career in an era in which female engineers of any background were a rarity; in the 1950s, she very well may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field. For nearly two decades she enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. As the years progressed, the promotions slowed, and she became frustrated at her inability to break into management-level grades. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of 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.”

Played By: Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures


Hidden Figures in the Classroom

And finally, if you’re running a contest on the most adorable school project related to Black History Month, may we submit the following for your approval? (h/t: The Huffington Post)

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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Jeff Durbin
Jeff Durbin

It’s a shame the movie was so factually inaccurate.

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