When Katherine Johnson, a career research mathematician at NASA Langley Research Center, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2014 (for her calculation of John Glenn’s orbital trajectory, among numerous other technical accomplishments), she recalled a quote from her father that has guided her life: “You are no better than anybody else, but you are no less than anybody else either.” Johnson’s characteristic humbleness and quiet perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles is perhaps one reason her story remained largely unknown in the public sphere. With the release of the film Hidden Figures (based on the fantastic book by Mary Shetterly, whose father was a NASA Langley engineer and worked alongside Johnson and the other female mathematicians in the computing group), the technical and social achievements of Johnson and her cohort are at last getting the marquee recognition they have always deserved.
Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of Katherine Johnson and two of her colleagues in the Langley computing group, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, in the period from 1960-1963. The film culminates with John Glenn’s orbital flight aboard Friendship 7, the inflection point at which America began to slowly pull ahead in the race to the high frontier. The cast of Hidden Figures is formidable: Taraji P. Henson portrays the studious, shy Johnson, Jenel Monae is fiery Mary Jackson, and Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn, the supervisor in all but title of the African American West computing group. Each portrayal is tremendous in its own right. Unfortunately, much of the character’s backstories as well as the evolution of Langley Research Center, detailed extensively in the book, are omitted here in the interest of length.
Johnson’s history is particularly remarkable. Growing up in West Virginia, Johnson graduated high school at 15 and received a university degree in mathematics at 18. She began her teaching career in Virginia and continued there until 1938, when a US Supreme Court ruling made it possible for African American students to attend graduate school if equivalent programs weren’t available at public black colleges. In the wake of that ruling, Johnson enrolled as a graduate student in mathematics at West Virginia University, becoming one of only three African American students at the institution and the only woman. Met with a hostile environment at WVU, Johnson returned to her teaching post in Virginia until 1951, when her sister-in-law mentioned that Langley Research Center (a facility that was part of the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics) was hiring mathematicians. The openings at Langley were predicated by an executive order forbidding employment discrimination in the defense sector. Johnson started her job as a research mathematician there the following year, where she joined Langley’s group of female “human computers” and worked alongside engineers to provide calculations in support of wind tunnel and flight tests for experimental aircraft and missiles.
In 1957, the work of Langley (along with virtually every federal research enclave in the US) pivoted dramatically following the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik, the first satellite. The United States, led by Dr. Werner von Braun and his team at Redstone Arsenal’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, countered with the successful launch of Explorer I and the space race was born. With the establishment of a civil space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, Langley (formerly a NACA facility) became part of NASA, as did the Von Braun team in Huntsville working on rocket development. It’s here, at the infancy of NASA, that the film commences.
While the filmic version remains largely true to Shetterly’s account of Vaughn, Johnson, Jackson and their respective roles in the Mercury program, some departures are taken from the historical narrative for dramatic effect. John Glenn did reportedly “ask the girl to check the numbers”, but the request wasn’t made from the launchpad. Since the calculation took Johnson nearly 3 days to complete (not the mere 20 seconds shown in the movie), Glenn’s request was more likely issued about a week prior to his flight. Katherine Johnson’s search for a bathroom she could use is similarly dramatized. Per Shetterly’s book, there was in fact no “colored bathroom” in the building housing the trajectory analysis group, but rather than make the long trek back to the west computing group, Johnson simply used the bathroom closest to her workstation and no one ever questioned it.
Throughout its telling, Hidden Figures emphasizes the power that can be achieved when women advocate for one another in the workplace (a ‘60s iteration of Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in together” tenet). Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson didn’t see themselves as competitors. They and the other women of the computing group supported and celebrated one another throughout their careers, believing that there would be room at the table for each of their unique gifts. It turns out they were right. Johnson went on to a stellar technical career at NASA, authoring multiple technical reports and academic writings. Vaughn became one of the first programmers at NASA and rose to the rank of supervisor. Mary Jackson, who held a degree in mathematics, took additional classes to become an engineer. She achieved the highest rank for an engineer without supervisory responsibilities before transitioning into a role as the Federal Women’s Program Manger in the Office of Equal Opportunity, where she spent the remainder of her life ensuring that women at the agency had the same opportunities as their male counterparts and access to career paths that enabled them to realize their full potential.
Hidden Figures isn’t a preachy movie, but it reminds us time and again that representation matters. While women and minorities have made great advances socially and professionally since the time period in which Hidden Figures is set, science and engineering remain fields that are overwhelmingly white and male. Katherine Johnson characteristically shied away from press and publicity for her role in the space program throughout her life, but she never hesitated to talk to students about her career and experiences. Who knows how many became engineers, scientists, or mathematicians (or otherwise pursued their dreams in other fields) because Katherine spoke at their school, scout troop, rotary club? We don’t have metrics on that, but I’d venture to guess there were more than a few students who were inspired enough to put in the hard work to make their burgeoning dreams real. Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn understood that they had both a platform and a responsibility to inspire and empower, believing always that “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Hidden Figures is rather conventional from a filmmaking perspective, but the strength of the story and performances carry the film nicely. It’s an audience pleaser about strong, intelligent women making their way in a field (and era) that isn’t particularly receptive to their presence. Hidden Figures ultimately testifies to the power in breaking barriers and “being first.” Once barriers are broken, as we are reminded in a standout scene from Janel Morae when her character petitions the court to take night classes in engineering offered at a local (all white) high school, they never have to be broken again. For those of us who are women and/or minorities and work in technical fields, we owe a great deal to the Vaughn/Jackson/Johnson triumvirate (and countless others whose stories haven’t gotten the cinematic treatment). We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants.
I think this a film everyone should see (it’s inspiring and remarkable in all respects), but if you are a teacher or have children, please don’t miss the opportunity to introduce your young men and women to the story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn. Thanks to author Margot Shetterly and filmmaker Theodore Melfi, their remarkable contributions are hidden no more.
Disclaimer: This writing was prepared in my personal capacity. The opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the view of any other organization I am affiliated with or employed by.
Katherine Johnson receives the Presidential medal of freedom from Barack Obama in 2015.