The "human computers" see the fruits of their work. Astronaut John Glenn becomes the very first American to orbit the Earth!
Janelle Monet portrays mathematician Mary Jackson.
Taraj P. Henson portrays Katherine Johnson.
Hidden No Longer.
How Black Women Made the Math Make Sense So America Could Enter the Space Race.
“Get the girl, check the numbers,” Glenn said, referring to Katherine Johnson. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”
America stood on the brink of a Second World War. There was a push to compete in aeronautics. To do so, human “computers” were needed. Mathematicians. Men were needed to engineer. So women became the solution.
Called the “The West Computers,” African American women stepped to the call to serve. They blazed the trail. Thanks to their work, the trail was ablaze for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders forever more.
Author, Margot Lee Shetterly, in her book Hidden Figures, upon which many award nominations are accumulating, says - “We've had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft,” she says. “Those guys have all told their stories.” Now it’s the women’s turn.
Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Langley is the oldest of NASA's field centers and is located in Hampton, Virginia.
The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.
The first black “computers” didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That’s the way it was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for “the black computers,” slide rule in hand, to make their way into NASA history.
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“This story takes place at the collision of the Cold War, the space race, the Jim Crow South, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. It is incredible territory for a rich and powerful story few people know about at all.”
Ted Melfi, Director
Actress Octavia Spencer (center) portrays Mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.
Melba Roy led the group of human computers who tracked the Echo satellites in the 1960s. (NASA)
Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a "celestial training device." (NASA)