ByDavid Latchman, writer at
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David Latchman

The story of the Space Race is usually about the square-jawed test pilots who beat the Russians by strapping themselves into the rockets that propelled them into space. Helping them were the engineers and scientists who pushed the technological envelope, testing and designing the vehicles to send these astronauts skyward. Very few people know that behind the scenes, however, there were the human computers who performed the much needed calculations for the engineers and scientists.

The film Hidden Figures (check out the trailer below), based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of three women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) who were members of the West Area Computers which was an all-African American group of female mathematicians operating out of NASA's Langley Research Center. Their contributions helped their country win the Space Race.

The story of who these women were and what they did was largely unknown, until now.

Before Computers were Electronic, they were Human

Before computers became the electronic devices we know today, they were made of flesh and bone. The grinding hard work of large problem sets were often done by hand. This was achieved by breaking the mathematics into simpler parts. Though famed astronomer Edmond Halley identified and predicted when the comet named after him would return, it was the work of French mathematician, Alexis Clairaut, along with Jérôme Lalande and Nicole-Reine Lepaute, who successfully computed the comet's 1759 return. The trio, sitting at a table in Palais, Luxembourg, using nothing more than quill pens and paper, computed the comet's path by reducing the mathematics to a series of baby steps.

In the history of computing, this humbler level of scientific work was open, even welcoming, to women. Unfortunately, going beyond and stepping out into the field as a scientist was often denied to women for many years. While women often excelled at computation, often exceeding their male counterparts, the female mind was assumed unable to handle the rigors of scientific work.

Pickering and his computers in front the Harvard College Observatory in 1913.
Pickering and his computers in front the Harvard College Observatory in 1913.

Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, often complained about his all-male computers and reportedly said that his Scottish maid could do a better job. In 1881, he hired his maid Williamina Fleming to process astronomical calculations and she performed admirably. She devised a system of classifying stars based on the relative amount of hydrogen observed in a star's spectra; the basis of which still remains a part of modern stellar classification systems.

In the first half of the 20th century, many American laboratories hired human computers to run their experiments. During that time, though relegated to the background, these women continued to play an important role in these institutions. By the late 1930's, U.S. involvement in World War II shifted this dynamic, bringing women to the forefront of computing at academic and research centers across the country.

World War II and Air Supremacy

Though Hidden Figures takes place in the 1960s and follows the events leading up to John Glenn's orbit around the Earth, the three mathematicians started work at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the federal agency created to conduct aeronautical research.

In 1943, the United States of America found itself trailing technologically amid international tensions. The mediocre aircraft industry needed to rise to the challenges of World War II. There was skyrocketing demand to process aeronautical data. With the rapid expansion of the nation's defense industries, pre-war employment policies that discriminated against minorities became inadequate. Changes were needed to sustain the viability of the nation's civil service and this meant an increased demand for workers.

Dorothy Vaughn

Dorothy Johnson-Vaughn (Credit: NASA)
Dorothy Johnson-Vaughn (Credit: NASA)

In 1943, math teacher Dorothy Vaughn spied a curious bulletin with the word "mathematics" written on it. This bulletin from NACA was probably intended for the white, well-to-do students from the nearby all-female teaching college in Farmville, VA. Vaughn applied anyway and was accepted. While at NACA, the Jim Crow laws in effect in the state of Virginia meant that "colored" mathematicians like Vaughn had to work separately from their white counterparts. Vaughn was assigned to the segregated "West Area Computing" unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians.

There were limited ways for a black woman to advance at NACA with most opportunities beginning and ending in West Area. In 1949, West Area's head Blanche Sponster fell ill and Vaughn was appointed acting head of the West Area. Despite being able to handle the task of leading the group, it would take a full two years of waiting in limbo before Vaughn was promoted to the role on a permanent basis.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson (Credit: NASA)
Mary Jackson (Credit: NASA)

Mary Jackson graduated with a degree in mathematics and began working with Dorothy Vaughn as a NACA computer in 1951.

At times the work flow in East Computing, the all-white female counterparts to the West Area, would be too great for the computers to handle and a call would be sent to Vaughn for reinforcements. Two years after she started working at NACA, Vaughn temporarily sent Jackson to work with the East Computers. By this time, the routine of computing work had become familiar to Jackson. Unfortunately, when nature called, the same could not be said of her familiarity with East Area's geography. When Jackson asked the white women where the bathroom was located, she was met with giggles. Why would they know where to find her bathroom. With no signs telling her which bathrooms she could use, feeling angry and humiliated, Jackson stormed off to find her own bathroom.

Later that day, Jackson ran into Kazimierz "Kaz" Czarnecki, an aeronautical engineer and assistant section head to the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. She broke protocol and vented her frustration to Kaz. He listened patiently and when she had finished, Kaz asked her to come work for him. She accepted and took her first step on the road to become an engineer.

Eventually, Jackson achieved her goal and broke through the glass ceiling to become an engineer and after 34 years at NASA, Jackson would reach the highest level she could without becoming a supervisor. Later, Jackson changed positions and became an administrator as an Equal Opportunity Specialist. In that role, she helped make changes at NASA and highlighted the accomplishments of women and minorities in their fields.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson in 2008 (Credit: NASA)
Katherine Johnson in 2008 (Credit: NASA)

Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson began high school at the age of ten at a time when schooling stopped past the eighth grade for most African-Americans. Katherine graduated high-school at the age of fourteen and college at eighteen in 1937.

While at West Virginia State, William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor took Johnson under his wing, training the young girl and creating advanced math classes just for her. Claytor encouraged Johnson to pursue a graduate degree in mathematics. Unfortunately, she did not finish grad school, choosing to start a family with her husband James Goble instead. It was not until 1953, several years of being a teacher and a stay-at-home mom, that Johnson applied to NACA and became a West Computer.

Two weeks after her start at West Area, some engineers in the Flight Research Division needed the help of a mathematician. Dorothy Vaughn sent Johnson to work with them. The engineers never returned her to the computing pool. This posed a special problem for Vaughn. Johnson's offer to start work at NACA came with a six-month probationary period and though she had spent only two weeks in West Area, she was still Dorothy's responsibility. Vaughn confronted the engineers over their shared problem. They could either employ Johnson full-time and give her a raise, or send her back to the computing pool. Johnson was too valuable to send back, so they kept her.

The Sputnik Crisis, the Space Race, and NASA

Replica of Sputnick-1 at the Air and Space Museum (Credit: NASA)
Replica of Sputnick-1 at the Air and Space Museum (Credit: NASA)

On October 4, 1957, the world had awoken to the dawn of the Space Age. The Soviet Union launched a metal sphere with four external radio antennae to broadcast radio pulses into low Earth orbit. In the early 1950s, the United States was the dominant world power. U-2 spy planes made frequent flights over the USSR, providing intelligence on the country's nuclear capabilities. The United States was confident of its technological superiority, but the appearance of the world's first artificial satellite changed all that.To regain their technological edge, the United States needed an agency dedicated to conquering space. NACA was chosen for America's space mission. The once quiet and largely obscure agency needed a new name to go along with its new public, high profile image. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with the passing of the Space Act of 1958.

Playing Catch-up

NASA decided that their first attempt at putting a man into space should be a simple ballistic flight. The capsule was fired into space by a rocket like a bullet from a gun, taking a parabolic path to land somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The calculations to accomplish this needed to be precise.

It was Johnson who took it upon herself to analyze the trajectory of what would become the Freedom 7 mission where Alan Shepard (Dane Davenport) became the first American in space. The initial report she wrote, "Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position," was submitted on the Friday after Thanksgiving 1959.

Though the early data-processing machines of the time (check out the above video for more details on their introduction) could process calculations that surpassed human ability, they were not exactly known for their reliability. Engineers and the female computers needed to keep a close eye on the machine's output. No one knew this better than test pilot John Glenn and he made the decision that he would not fly unless Johnson checked the computer's calculations.

Johnson, using nothing more than her brain and calculating machine, crunched the numbers for two possible launch scenarios, one following an eastward launch and the other westward. Using the same hypothetical numbers, NASA's engineers checked Johnson's calculations to their computer's output. It matched and was found to be in "very good agreement." John Glenn would fly.

 Astronaut John Glenn Jr. entering the Mercury capsule, "Friendship 7." (Credit: NASA)
Astronaut John Glenn Jr. entering the Mercury capsule, "Friendship 7." (Credit: NASA)

The success of America's first manned space mission would lead to Project Gemini, the missions that would eventually put the US in the lead against the Soviet Union to ultimately win with a landing on the Moon in the Apollo missions.

Why is 'Hidden Figures' the Movie we need Today?

The three women featured in the movie Hidden Figures broke the barriers of race and gender to show that everyone can excel in mathematics, science, and engineering. Katherine Johnson, the only surviving member of the trio, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her mathematical work at NASA.

Learning about these women, their life stories, and what they accomplished can do the same. It also teaches girls about women who have made history in the field and gives them a heroes to look up to.

'Hidden Figures' is currently playing in selected theaters, and can be seen nationwide from January 6th, 2016.


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