We love any story involving ambitious women breaking down barriers to help advance the world. Especially when the plot is based on a true story, and the leading ladies defy all sorts of discriminatory gender and racial typecasts. Hidden Figures does exactly that. And if you haven’t seen it, we (highly) recommend that you head to the theater.
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of three brilliant African American women; Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Taraji Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer), who calculated critical coordinates behind the scenes at NASA as human computers during the 1960s.
Hidden Figures is a testament to dreaming big – and the power that lies in shattering limitations imposed on women. We guarantee you will leave the movie feeling empowered and motivated to embrace your own ambitions! But before you head to the theater, learn more about these trailblazing women…
Johnson (pictured above) began working at NASA in its earliest days, beginning in the 1950s. Her mathematical mind was so trusted, in fact, that NASA says astronaut John Glenn (the first American to orbit Earth) called for Johnson to check the complex trajectory calculations made by the computer before launching the Friendship 7 in 1962.
As a child, Johnson was incredibly gifted and sped through her primary school days, ready to enter high school by the age of 10. Johnson later graduated from West Virginia State College at 18 and began working as a teacher. In 1953, she found work at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had first begun hiring African-American woman during World War II.
Eventually, Johnson was able to put her incredible mind to work for NASA in Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department. She went on to work on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programs, calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Glenn’s historic orbit. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.
Despite her groundbreaking accomplishments, Johnson, who turned 98 this past summer, always remained humble. “We always worked as a team,” she said in a 2010 interview. “It’s never just one person.”
We always work as one team. It’s never just one person’s job.
Like Johnson, Mary Jackson joined Langley after working as a teacher. In the 1950s, she experimented with processing data from wind tunnel and flights. Eventually, she joined a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer, which required taking classes at the University of Virginia in addition to her work. In 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.
Dorothy Vaughan paved the way for minorities by becoming NASA’s first African-American manager. According to NASA, the talented mathematician left her position as a teacher during World War II to work at Langley, in what she believed would be a temporary position. However, she stayed on after the war and was asked to helm the West Area Computing Unit after Jim Crow laws required segregation of the African-American women from their white counterparts.
Vaughan headed the division from 1949 until 1958. She continued to use her incredible skills in an integrated computer division and became an expert programmer, contributing to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program before retiring in 1971.