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3 SIGNIFICANT FIGURES BEHIND NASA’S “HIDDEN FIGURES”

Updated

Mathematicians and movies have long been strange bedfellows.  Math is complicated, internal and not easily expressed visually.  At the same time, those amazing humans who can see deeply into mathematical worlds off-limits to the rest of us can be utterly fascinating.

Opening on February 22 in Philippine cinemas from 20th Century Fox, “Hidden Figures” takes the audience back in the turbulent 60s, battling discrimination at home and in the workplace, Katherine Johnson, (Taraji P. Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), all stellar mathematicians, were undeterred in their pursuit of academic excellence. Instrumental in helping America to eventually win the space race, they broke down barriers, laying the groundwork for future generations.  Oscar winner, Kevin Costner, plays their supervisor at NASA. The exciting and engrossing film was directed by Ted Melfi and features a strong supporting cast, including Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons. There is a powerful score from multiple Grammy winning musician/composer Pharrell Williams.

kevin costner and taraji p henson in HIDDEN FIGURES

This year’s strongest Oscar contender for Best Picture, “Hidden Figures”, directed by Theodore Melfi, relates the little known story of three pioneering black women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, all math wizards at NASA, who had a formidable impact on history. Known as ‘colored computers’, they crossed racial and gender boundaries in the challenging fields of analytical geometry, engineering and rocket science. Defying the odds in the face of prejudice, they combined courage with intellectual rigor, pursuing excellence and helping America to ultimately win the Space Race. Great role models, they also paved the way for future generations.

Yet remarkably, until now, hardly anyone knew their names. “Hidden Figures” focuses on the lives of NASA’s African-American women as they struggle to solve brain-twisting problems while also breaking down barriers – but it was also essential to get the numbers that meant so much to them right.  After all, just one degree off in their equations could have meant unthinkable tragedy for NASA.

“The idea of STEM is very important to this film,” says Williams.  “I consider math to be a real art and it’s also a universal language.  It doesn’t even matter what solar system you’re in, math applies.”

Williams is excited for today’s audiences to have the chance to meet Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy and Mary.   “She (Katherine) is someone who while surrounded by the darkness of the past, saw the future.  She saw a future where woman superseded all expectations and were equally valued – and the sooner we all see that, I think the better our planet will be,” he sums up.

Says director Ted Melfi, “In this story, you see how skill and knowledge are equalizers.  During the space race, when we put everything aside and said, ‘whatever race or sex you are, whatever background you have, if you can do the math, please help us get to the moon’ something amazing happened.  People were valued for their talents and in turn gave their country valuable and precious gifts.”

He concludes:  “A country divided along any lines can accomplish little, but a country united and inspired to work together can achieve the very best.”

janelle monae in HIDDEN FIGURES

ABOUT THE REAL-LIFE CHARACTERS

 

KATHERINE JOHNSON (Played by Taraji P. Henson):

One of the brightest minds of her generation, mathematician, physicist and space scientist, Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. Displaying an early aptitude for math, she was brilliant with figures. Encouraged by her parents and teachers, Johnson attended West Virginia State College and graduated with highest honors.

She became the first African American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, when the state first integrated its graduate schools in 1930. Originally a teacher, Johnson was hired as a computer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1953. She was assigned to the Flight Research Division and became indispensable, doing calculations for orbital trajectories on the early Mercury flights. Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard, the first American in Space. Her math was instrumental to the success of the historic Friendship 7 Mission, in which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The early electronic IBM computer was essential to Glenn’s flight, but not reliable, so Glenn insisted that “the girl” (he meant Johnson) manually check the numbers before his flight. The successful flight, of course, marked a turning point in the Space Race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The stellar mathematician also worked on the calculations for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite.

Johnson has three daughters from her first marriage to James Goble, who died in 1956. Since 1959, she has been married to Colonel James Johnson. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

DOROTHY VAUGHAN (Played by Octavia Spencer):

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1910, Dorothy Vaughan was a gifted child who excelled academically and musically. Her family relocated to West Virginia when she was eight. Aged 15, Vaughan won a full scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio. Married to Howard Vaughan, the mother of six was a schoolteacher before joining NASA’s Langley Research Center as a computer in the 40s.  She was promoted to a management position and became NASA’s first black supervisor.

A fierce champion for her staff, Vaughan devoted herself to fighting for promotions and pay raises for both black and white women computers. With the introduction of the first electronic computers to NASA, Vaughan had the foresight to realize that the role of the human computer would vanish. Reinventing herself, she learned how to program the IBM, becoming proficient in Fortran (computer programing language). Vaughan also encouraged the women in her department to become computer programmers, in order to save their jobs. She joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. Dorothy Vaughan died in 2008.

MARY JACKSON (Played by Janelle Monáe):

Born in Hampton Virginia in 1921, Mary Jackson graduated in math and physical science from Hampton Institute. Married to Levi Jackson Sr., the mother of two initially worked as teacher. A gifted mathematician, Jackson started her NASA career as a computer. Recognized for her excellent engineering skills, Jackson was encouraged by NASA engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki to enter a training program that would enable her to be promoted from mathematician to engineer.

Tenacious and courageous, she petitioned to be allowed into a segregated white high school, in order to take the college courses required for her to work officially as a NASA engineer. Winning her fight and completing her qualifications, Jackson went on to become NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer and is thought to be the first black female engineer in the United States. Deeply concerned about equality for women, later in her career, Jackson took a demotion to become a human resources manager. Among the honors she received was an Apollo Group Achievement Award. For three decades, Jackson was an enthusiastic Girl Scouts leader. She died in 2005.

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  • tk

    With such a pool of talented, hardworking upright citizens, giving their personal bests and strength consistently throughout their lives, no wonder why the U.S. is such a great country.

    If only our educational system, society and mass media can improve their acts and work together to promote, instill, teach and inspire our youth and our families to work hard and value challenges in the direction of hard sciences and productivity, we might also be able to live useful, meaningful lives, contributing tangibly even in small ways, to the welfare of our country and people.

    Perhaps first we need to understand who we are as people and as a race, measure our abilities, habits and morals against the world. Then work and teach ourselves to rise above our frailties such as sloth, false pride, vices, immorality, practical ignorance, weak dishonest character that has turned us into a bunch of unruly, misguided, corrupt savages, only to be abused, drugged, preyed upon and exploited by all sorts of internal and external forces.

    But we can always try to change, and it might be easier to do now than ever, if we have the realizations and the will.