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These Math Geniuses at NASA Sent the U.S. to Space

"Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
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 "Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
© Twentieth Century Fox

Last year, Katherine Johnson was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mathematician and physicist, now 98, was recognized as intellectually gifted early in life and started high school at the tender age of 10. After college, she taught before spending time as a stay-at-home mom. Then, in the early 1950s, she landed a job at NACA, the organization which became NASA. There, her mathematical genius shined and she became a crucial part of the team sending the country's first astronauts into space. 

"So if you think your job is pressure-packed," President Barack Obama said in his speech before presenting Johnson with a medal, "hers meant that forgetting to 'carry the one,' might send somebody floating off into the solar system."

But, Johnson is a math whiz and her calculations made a profound impact on early space exploration. So good was her math that NASA notes an anecdote where astronaut John Glenn had her double-check the numbers from a new computer machine before his now-legendary orbit around the earth. Johnson had calculated Alan Shepard's landmark flight into space. She helped get Apollo 11 to the moon and Apollo 13 back to Earth. In a career at NASA that lasted over 30 years, she got to be a part of the evolution of the space program, eventually working on Space Shuttle missions and early planning to head to Mars, before her retirement in 1986. She became a vital part of the United State's accomplishments in this realm, but, even though she was a part of major missions and authored many papers, her name wasn't well-known outside of her field.

In recent years, though, that has changed. First came Margot Lee Shetterly's book, "Hidden Figures," a history of African-American women who worked for NASA. Then came the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now, "Hidden Figures" has been adapted to film, with the movie set for a January release. In it, Taraji P. Henson ("Empire") stars as Johnson. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe also star in the film as fellow NASA trailblazers Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The film screened at ArcLight Theaters Sherman Oaks on December 6 for the KCET Cinema Series. Following the film, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi appeared with Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler for a Q&A session led by Cinema Series host Pete Hammond. 

There are reasons why it has taken so long for the stories of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson to come to light. "When you think about the obvious of it, think about the racism of it, think about the sexism of it. That's very prevalent and very strong," Melfi said. "But, in the end of the day, we don't have parades for mathematicians."

The stars of the Space Race were those few who made that perilous trip beyond Earth's atmosphere. But, in order for Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others to take that risk, there are teams of semi-anonymous people making that possible. In "Hidden Figures," both the book and movie, we learn about a few of the black women who made their careers in a burgeoning field during a period of segregation.

"Hidden Figures" movie screening at the KCET Cinema Series
KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond poses with "Hidden Figures" director Theodore Melfi and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. | Photo: Michele Garza

Dorothy Vaughan entered NASA's predecessor during World War II. It was the era of Rosie the Riveter and, according to Shetterly's book, a period where women and people of color were able to secure jobs that would have otherwise been given to white men. She ended up becoming a force within the organization, helping other women of color keep and maintain their careers while working as a supervisor. 

Gender and race played out in a few different ways inside NASA. "In the late '50s, Eisenhower mandated to hire females in government positions," Melfi said. "NASA, at the time, had a problem in the late '50s and early '60s in the space program; They couldn't find enough people to do the math because men thought the math work was clerical/secretarial."

Melfi explained to the crowd that the story of these three computers was part of a much larger story of women working at NASA. "They recruited women from all over the country and they went to colleges, high schools, they basically got a lot of teachers," he said. "They found 30 white women and started the East Computer Group and they found 22 African-American women, black women, and started the West group only because they were segregated so they had to be on a different campus."

 "Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
© Twentieth Century Fox

Eventually, IBM came along to do the work that the women were doing by head and hand. Vaughan, though, had keen foresight and learned programming language Fortran at the advent of IBM computers. Shetterly explains that, because she was able to program, and passed that knowledge onto the women she supervised, Vaughan helped save the jobs of many women who would have become unemployed once machine computers started doing the work once left to human computers. 

"All of those women were out of work, except for the ones that Dorothy Vaughan had trained to run Fortran on the new IBMs," Melfi told the audience at the KCET Cinema Series screening. "They migrated over there as an unsegregated group."

 "Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
© Twentieth Century Fox

Yes, there was more at play than gender here. NASA may have been progressive, but this was happening in Langley, Virginia, where segregation was so strong that even Brown v. Board of Education, couldn't make much of an impact. There were separate groups of white and black women working at NASA. In her book, Shetterley notes that NASA gradually integrated on its own, but that didn't change the fact that it was located in a segregated state. According to "Hidden Figures," Mary Jackson had continually observed the differences in opportunities between white and black people in the state and actively worked to make a change. Shetterley writes that Jackson believed that although she was smart and dedicated to her job, she advanced from a computer to an engineer thanks to the help of women like Vaughan and others who had preceded her. "Each one had cracked the hole in the wall a little wider, allowing the next talent to come through," writes Shetterley. "And now that Mary had walked through, she was going to open the wall as wide as possible for the people coming behind her."

Already very active in community organizations, Jackson spent the final years of her career at NASA working specifically to advance women and people of color within the organization. Her NASA obituary notes that she worked as an Affirmative Action program manager and Federal Women's Program manager, where she helped in the hiring process. The obituary refers to her as a "role model" whose actions helped many others move forward in their careers. 

 "Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
© Twentieth Century Fox

While "Hidden Figures," the film, focuses on Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, the book is much more expansive. It looks at the lives of more women who were part of NACA and NASA, as well as the changing politics going from World War II to the move towards space exploration. It also looks at the women who came to prominence in later years, like Christine Darden, who retired in 2007 after a distinguished 40-year career with NASA. 

"The thing about it is that Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are revered at NASA and have been for many, many years," Melfi said. "We're just finding out about it now. Internally, at NASA, these women are legends."

"Hidden Figures" stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
© Twentieth Century Fox

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