Hidden Figures Story: The Unsung Heroes Behind NASA’s Space Race

The African American women mathematicians in 'Hidden Figures' played a vital role in understanding different dimensions in space, leading to groundbreaking discoveries and expanding our knowledge of the universe.

Foundations of ‘Hidden Figures’

The story of “Hidden Figures” exposes the untold narrative of the African American women mathematicians who played a crucial role in NASA during the critical era of the space race.

Historical Context

“Hidden Figures” unfolds in the early 1960s against the backdrop of the American Dream and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, entrusted the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, with key responsibilities that would shape America’s efforts in space exploration during World War I and beyond.

The transformation from NACA to NASA symbolized a shift from aeronautics to a broader focus on space adventures, reflecting the competition for supremacy in space after Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon with Apollo 11.

Key Individuals

Among the critical contributors were several “hidden figures”: African American women whose mathematical expertise contributed to the successes at Langley.

Names like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were instrumental for their work with the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, yet their stories remained largely unrecognized until recently.

These women overcame racial and gender barriers, crunching numbers and performing complex calculations by hand at a time when FORTRAN was still considered a leading-edge programming language for computers.

Biographies and Achievements

In the midst of racial and gender inequality, a group of extraordinary African-American women carved their names into history.

They excelled as mathematicians, engineers, and physicists, playing pivotal roles in some of NASA’s most significant accomplishments.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson shone as NASA’s first black female engineer.

Inspired to maximize her potential, she pursued graduate-level courses to qualify for the position and played a crucial role in improving the safety of air and space travel.

Katherine Johnson

Regarded for her precise calculation of mathematical equations necessary for space travel, Katherine Johnson proved indispensable to the success of multiple spaceflights, including Apollo 11.

Her work not only catapulted astronauts into space, but led to the recognition of the profound capabilities of women in science and mathematics.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan, celebrated for her portrayal by Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures, served as a leading human computer at NASA and a mentor to many.

Her intellect and fortitude pioneered the way for Black female mathematicians and played an instrumental part in the transition to electronic computers.

Social Impact and Legacy

The untold story of the “hidden figures” of NASA’s early space program reveals the significant contributions of black women who faced racial and gender barriers, yet played crucial roles in America’s aeronautical advancements and civil rights progression.

Breaking Barriers

Black women such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made invaluable contributions at NASA during an era of intense discrimination and segregation.

As part of the West Computers, they were vital in calculating trajectories and engineering solutions pivotal for successful missions.

Their expertise supported the flights of astronauts like John Glenn and Alan Shepard.

Recognition and Portrayal in Media

The stories of these remarkable women gained broader recognition through the film Hidden Figures, earning several nominations for major awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress.

Theodore Melfi directed the film portraying their perseverance and intellect, capturing the essence of the challenges they faced in their quest for equity and acknowledgment within NASA, as people previously consigned to the background took their place at the forefront of historical narratives.