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Black Christian Women Helped America To Space Travel

'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space
On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn blasted off into space and became the first American to orbit Earth. Behind the scenes, thousands of engineers and mathematicians worked tirelessly to make NASA's Friendship 7 mission a success. Historical photos show them as white men in crisp white shirts and ties — but we now know there's more to that picture.
Hidden Figures

In her book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly gives name and voice to the African-American women who worked as human "computers" in the space program. Now, just a few months after the book was published, a new movie is also telling that story. (The film rights were optioned just a couple of weeks after Shetterly got her book deal.) As mathematicians and engineers, these women made incalculable contributions to the space program — and the fact that they were African-Americans working in the segregated South makes their stories even more remarkable.
Shetterly grew up in the 1960s in Hampton, Va., not far from NASA's Langley Research Center. She's African-American, and her father, extended family and neighbors were all scientists, physicists and engineers at NASA. But it wasn't until about six years ago that she understood the magnitude of the work black women were doing there. She recently told NPR's Michel Martin, "I knew that many of them worked at NASA. I didn't know exactly what they did."
Shetterly spent the next six years searching for more information. She researched archives and interviewed former and current NASA employees and family members. In her book, she details the journeys and personal lives of Langley's star mathematicians, and recounts how women computers — both black and white — broke barriers in both science and society.





"They were dreamers"
In the film Hidden Figures, Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, NASA's first African-American supervisor. The movie shows a tenacious Vaughan insisting that her title reflect the supervisory work she was already doing.
When Spencer first heard the film pitch, she says, she thought it was fiction. "And then when I realized it wasn't fiction, it was even more imperative to be a part of the story. ... They were highly educated and they were moms and they were dreamers and they had fierce natures. And so there was so much about who they were that wasn't lost on me."
Black Christian Women Helped America To Space Travel
"They were moms and they were dreamers and they had fierce natures," says actress Octavia Spencer (center). She plays NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan alongside Taraji P. Henson (left) as mathematician Katherine Johnson and Janelle Monáe (right) as engineer Mary Jackson.
Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, an extraordinary mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn's Friendship 7 mission. (Johnson also worked on the Apollo and space shuttle programs.) Sitting in her trailer after shooting a scene in which Johnson explains a difficult equation to her perplexed male colleagues, Henson confesses that in real life, "Math and science scares me. It makes my heart palpitate."
Henson remembers feeling a little angry when she first learned about Johnson's achievements. "The world needs to know her," she says. " ... Whenever I watch any footage of anything about NASA, you see men. You see a smoke-filled room full of suits and ties. You never see women."
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe cried when she first read the script. She plays Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, "may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field" in the 1950s. Monáe says, "I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored 'computers' were. I had no idea. And I'm just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit."
In the film, Monáe's character is portrayed as feisty and unstoppable. She's furious when she learns that the courses she needs to advance her career are only taught at Hampton's all-white high school. "Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line," Jackson bemoans. "Every time."
In real life, Jackson petitioned the city to let her attend. As Shetterly writes, "Mary was seeking to make herself more useful to her country, and yet it was she who had to go hat in hand to the school board. It was a grit-your-teeth, close-your-eyes, take-a-deep-breath kind of indignity. However, there was never any doubt in Mary's mind that it must be done."


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