The Final Frontier’s Forgotten Heroines

December 21, 2016

The film Hidden Figures is set to hit US theaters in a few days, and reviews are already favorable. Based on a book of the same title, the movie chronicles the true story of three African American women – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – who struggle to gain recognition during the early years of NASA. These brilliant engineers and mathematicians laid foundational work for NASA’s Mercury missions and for future generations of women to gain prominence in aeronautics and engineering. In honor of Hidden Figures upcoming release, we’ve put together a synopsis of the women’s greatest accomplishments.

Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson)

katherinejohnson[Image Source: NASA]

Katherine Johnson remains one of the most important people in the history of NASA calculations. Her decades-long work laid the foundation for digital computing at NASA. She calculated launch windows, emergency return systems and craft trajectories for Project Mercury, the Apollo 11 flight and the Space Shuttle program.

To begin her stellar career in mathematics, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College at age 15. She became the first African American woman to desegregate the grad school at West Virginia University in 1938. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which later became NASA) offered her a job in 1953, which she immediately took. She boldly asserted her mathematical abilities in such a way that no male or white colleague could ignore her. According to the National Visionary Leadership Project, Johnson consistently ignored the outright gender and racial barriers.

Johnson went on to co-author 26 papers. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monae)

Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley[Image Source: NASA]

Aerospace engineer Mary Jackson served as another member of NACA’s calculations team. She grew up in Hampton, Virginia and earned two Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute. She served as secretary for the United Service Organization in 1943. NACA hired her in 1951 for the Langley Research Center base. She spent five years with NASA and earned a promotion to aerospace engineer.

Jackson served 34 years as an engineer, reaching the highest engineering level possible before a supervisor position. Rather than take the raise, she took another role as a program manager for women and minorities with NASA. She then retired in 1985.

She specialized in wind tunnel experiments, and then used the data to predict the impact of airflow on spacecraft. Jackson wanted to instill a love of science and engineering in community children. In an article for a local newspaper, Jackson said:

“We have to do something like this to get them interested in science. Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”

Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83.

Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer)

dorothyvaughan [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Dorothy Vaughan served as the first African American female head of personnel at the National Advisory committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Prior to her NACA hiring, Vaughan worked as a math teacher at a Virginia high school. During World War II, NACA hired her in 1943 as a part of an active recruitment for women in mathematics. After being hired, Vaughan found herself in the West Area Computers, a group of all African American women who made calculations by hand to improve space flight trajectories. Vaughan moved into electronic computing and quickly became adept at coding languages. Due to Vaughan’s skill, NACA then moved her to Langley’s Flight Mechanics Division.

In a 1994 interview, she said working at Langley during the great Space Age felt like being on “the cutting edge of something very exciting.” One of Vaughan’s children went on to be employed at NASA as well.

Hidden Figures will hit theaters in the US on Dec. 25.

SEE ALSO: More Female Engineers Graduated than Men at this US College

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