Film, book illuminate the hidden figures of the space race
There was a time – not so long ago – when computers were people. They were mathematicians. Like modern computers, they put numbers together into complex equations. They just used pencils, paper, and brains instead of electronic circuits. Their equations have helped pilot planes, rockets, and space shuttles. Now a new book and a new movie tell the stories of some of the computers. They were women of color who proved their math skills in the face of segregation and sexism. And their work helped the United States win the space race.
The film Hidden numbers follows three of these computers – Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. (Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe play these roles in the film, respectively.) All three worked at the Langley Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Their math and engineering skills helped put astronaut John Glenn into orbit around Earth in 1962.
The film is based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. In it, author Margot Lee Shetterly follows Vaughn, Johnson, Jackson, and other black women through their careers at Langley.
These women were hired as computers during and after World War II. They ran the numbers for engineers building new and improved airplanes at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In 1958, they switched from airplanes to spacecraft when NACA became NASA.
Until recently, few people knew that there were black women working as computers. Even Shetterly was surprised to learn of their existence. And once she heard about Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson, she got another surprise.
There was more.
She found that the office they worked in, called West Computing, “was a group of 25 women, black women… They worked around the clock during WWII and they were at the forefront of aeronautical research,” Shetterly said. during a lecture and panel for students on December 14 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC “You hear that women are not good at math, or women are not good in science, all of those things. Here is the mathematical documentary proof proving that it is false, ”she said.
At first, math may not seem like the most heroic subject for a movie. But the film (which includes a stellar Pharrell Williams soundtrack) shows that female mathematicians can conjure up as much drama as men in spacesuits. Johnson, Jackson and Vaughn stand out, at the center of every scene. They remain confident in their professional skills in the face of racism and sexism. They move around Langley’s world with zest, mathematical genius and clever one-liners.
Even though many people around the world know that Glenn has circled the globe and returned unharmed, the film creates a lot of tension as Johnson’s calculations are put to the test. Again and again she saves the day with her math skills. And when she put a huge, complex equation on a board to send a person into space, the audience in the movie theater burst into applause.
The film is not a true account of the book. Instead, it only picks up the chapters surrounding Glenn’s famous robbery. In the process, he blurs part of the timeline. New people and new events are invented. Johnson had two and a half days to redo the calculations for Glenn’s flight, not the few hours depicted in the film. While Jackson’s entry into engineering classes is highlighted, his later frustration in his career was not.
The book, both in the children’s edition and in the original, gives a more complex picture and covers more time.
The library event featured a panel of modern NASA engineers and scientists of color, people who have followed in the footsteps of computers. Shani Roy, 17, is a senior at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC. She said she was inspired after hearing scientists and listening to Shetterly read a passage from the book. Roy explained why: “This woman [Johnson], she was the only factor that would drive this man into space, because it depended on her reasoning. Roy was impressed, she said, “that one person could be so important.” Hearing the stories of these women inspired her to work to overcome her own obstacles as she pursues her own scientific career, she said.
Langley began to hire people of color in various roles during World War II. Many computers remained on after the war, studying planes under NACA, then rockets and space shuttles with NASA. NASA eventually traded in pencils and calculators for the first computer machines (what we now call computers). And human computers have become supervisors, computer programmers, and engineers. Along the way, these women went through the civil rights movement and saw better opportunities for women and people of color. And they were finally recognized for their efforts. On the one hand, this recognition came from President Barack Obama. In 2015, he awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work in helping to send people into space.
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