Hidden Figures Story: The Untold Impact of NASA’s Female Mathematicians

African-American women mathematicians at NASA overcame racial and gender barriers, crucially advancing the U.S. space race.

The Real-Life Heroines of NASA

A group of women working at their desks, surrounded by stacks of papers and vintage computers, with a large chalkboard filled with complex equations in the background

In a time of significant social and technological change, a group of African-American women emerged as pivotal players at NASA.

Their calculations and engineering prowess were crucial during America’s early space race efforts.

Pioneering Work at NACA and NASA

Before NASA was established, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) served as the backbone of early aeronautic innovation.

Here, at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, the agency employed a group of brilliant mathematicians who were known as “human computers.” Among these professionals, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan stood out.

These women not only possessed exceptional mathematical abilities but also played a significant role in the engineering achievements at NACA and later NASA.

For example, Mary Jackson, an engineer, advanced both America‘s understanding of aeronautics and the participation of women in science.

Johnson’s work on trajectories was vital for the success of the Friendship 7 mission, which made John Glenn the first American to orbit Earth.

Also noteworthy is Dorothy Vaughan, who became NASA’s first black supervisor and an expert programmer in the early days of computers.

Breaking Barriers: Rise Against Discrimination

Throughout their careers, these women faced substantial challenges due to racial and gender discrimination.

During the 1960s, they worked in a segregated facility called the West Area Computing unit at Langley.

The civil rights movement and Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the defense industry, gradually helped to break down these barriers.

Thanks to their persistence and resilience, they carved out new opportunities for black female mathematicians and engineers.

Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film “Hidden Figures,” and her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer respectively, were prime examples of African American women who overcame these obstacles.

They worked on complex calculations like plotting out wind tunnel test results and were involved in critical tasks that affected the trajectories of astronauts in space.

Their legacy represents not just a chapter in American history, but a significant leap for civil rights and the representation of black women in STEM fields.

Cultural Impact and Legacy

A group of women working at desks surrounded by complex calculations and technical drawings, symbolizing the cultural impact and legacy of the hidden figures story

The story of ‘Hidden Figures’ has reverberated through society, highlighting the overlooked contributions of African American women in NASA’s early days and their struggle against the odds for recognition.

Telling the Untold Story

‘Hidden Figures’ has been pivotal in bringing to light the significant roles played by a group of black female mathematicians at NASA, known as the “West Area Computers”.

These women worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, where they executed complex mathematical equations that were crucial for the success of the Mercury missions and further space exploration.

The release of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Theodore Melfi introduced audiences to the intertwined stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson, whose calculations helped astronaut John Glenn orbit the Earth.

Influence on Media and Academia

The legacy of ‘Hidden Figures’ extends beyond entertainment, as it has also sparked a deeper conversation about diversity in science and the vital role played by women and minorities in the field.

The film, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, has influenced media depiction of scientists and engineers by exposing the stories of these pioneering women at NASA, making room for more inclusive and accurate representation of the history of space exploration.

Academia has felt the ripple effect too, with increasing focus and encouragement for underrepresented groups to pursue studies and careers in STEM fields.

It has raised awareness about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of those historically marginalized, aligning with broader civil rights movements that seek to equalize opportunity and recognition in all professional spheres.