The movie “Hidden Figures” focuses on the challenges of the West Computing Group, African American women hired to develop launch and trajectory information for the NASA space program in Langley, VA in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the women had bachelors’ degrees in math and science, they were still treated differently for two reasons – they were African American and female. The movie focuses on three individuals in the group:
Kathryn Johnson was known as a “human computer.” She was instrumental in developing the math of the launches for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle programs. A new computational center for NASA was named in her honor last year.
Dorothy Vaughn was seen as the “unofficial supervisor” of the West Computing Group. She became interested in a new machine being installed. The 20 + white technicians could not figure out how to get the “IBM computer” to work. Dorothy “borrowed” a book on FORTRAN (computer language) from the public library (she wasn’t allowed to check out the book). She became self-taught in FORTRAN. After the technicians went home, Dorothy would go into the room to learn the functions of the computer. While reviewing the notes, she found a wire connection in the wrong place. When the 20+ white technicians were “fired” for not getting the computer to work, Dorothy was made supervisor of the computer section. The rest of the West Computing Group (African American women) took over the computer responsibilities. Dorothy became one of the world’s experts on FORTRAN.
Mary Jackson had a bachelors’ degree in math and physics. Even though she had been encouraged to apply to be an engineer, the academic requirements kept changing. She was told that to qualify she would have to take additional classes (this would eventually be called a Masters’ degree) through the University of Virginia. Local classes would be provided at Hampton High School. Unfortunately, Hampton was an all white school. She had to get a court order to attain night classes at the school. She completed the degree requirements allowing her to become NASA’s first African American female engineer.
An excellent movie. Never underestimate the impact one person can have.
Some theories were developed based on bias, prejudice, and misconceptions. It is important to understand the intent (context) so changes can be made to improve the situation.
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