'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space

Dec 16, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 1:04 pm

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.

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."

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."

"It's our story"

At 98, Katherine Johnson is the only surviving "hidden figure" featured in the movie. (Mary Jackson died in 2005, and Dorothy Vaughan in 2008.) In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her 33-year career at Langley.

Today, with her daughters by her side, Johnson seems bemused by all the fuss around the new movie. When asked about her role in Glenn's historic mission, she says, "It was just an assignment. I'm accustomed to being asked something and I, of course, answered to the best of my ability and hoped that's the answer they were looking for."

Johnson, who became a high school freshman at age 10, says she always liked learning. She's concerned about today's youth relying so heavily on the Internet for information. "They're hurt and don't know it," she says quietly. "They're not using their brain. ... And you've got to use your brain for it to grow and for things to be learned."

Twentieth Century Fox is seizing every opportunity to show Hidden Figures to the audiences most affected by the human computers' achievements. There have been screenings at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and for the National Society of Black Engineers.

Actress Octavia Spencer has attended many of these screenings. She's discouraged that, even today, more young women aren't going into STEM-related fields. "Young girls have now been taught that it's not cool. I mean, our culture is sexualizing everything in a way that, well, if you have a brain, it's just ... " Spencer shakes her head in frustration. "Dorothy and Katherine and Mary are important because young girls need to know that it's really wonderful if you're inclined in any of those disciplines. It's wonderful because we need it."

After a screening for NASA employees, senior systems analyst Julie Williams-Byrd, who is African-American, beamed. "I loved it," she says. She likes that the movie showed what these women were going through as they were making history, whether it was motherhood or having to run across Langley's campus to use the segregated bathroom. Williams-Byrd was particularly taken with Mary Jackson. "I feel Mary in my spirit. She went after it. She didn't let anything stop her. Not even her husband," she says with a laugh. " ... And that's one thing that we need to tell our young people. You know, 'Don't let anything stop you. If you've got a vision, go for it. Go for it. You can do it.' "

African-American astronaut Yvonne Cagle had a fitting reaction to the film. "I feel totally lifted up and off the planet," she says. Cagle is also a retired Air Force colonel and flight surgeon. "It's my story. It's your story. It's our story. It's a conversation that talks about: Even with limited thinking, dreaming is limitless." For Cagle, the movie affirmed her belief that "if you prepare and you persevere, anything is possible."

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And on February 20, 1962, some hundred million people were glued to their televisions as astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.


JOHN GLENN: Zero-G and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.

GREENE: The team that put him there included thousands of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. OK, what image just came into your head? 1960s square-jawed, crewcut white guys? Well, that's most often who you do see in movies and documentaries about that era at NASA. But a new book and movie called "Hidden Figures" shows the reality, and it's a very different picture, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The new movie, "Hidden Figures," was made with some serious star power - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae. One of the producers is Pharrell Williams, who also did the music.


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Running from the man, running from the badge. Don't act like you was there when you wasn't.

BLAIR: A brilliant mathematician, who happens to be a black woman, is forced to run in high heels to a building on the other side of Langley Research Center every time she needs to use the bathroom, the one marked colored.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Sometime my mind dives deep when I'm running.

BLAIR: Taraji Henson plays Katherine Johnson who, in real life, is NASA's most famous mathematician. At the time, she was one of the so-called human computers.


KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) You think you can find me the Frenet frame for this data using the Gram-Schmidt...

TARAJI P. HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Orthogonalization algorithm? Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.

BLAIR: NASA was just beginning to use electronic computers. Astronaut John Glenn had so much faith in Johnson's calculations, he asked that she double check the IBM.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: And he said, get the girl to do it.

BLAIR: Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of the book, "Hidden Figures."

SHETTERLY: You know, I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer. And if she says they're good, then, you know, I'm good to go, you know, as part of one of my preflight checklists. So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South, at the time, as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: John reports all systems in the spacecraft are go. The flight trajectory still looks good.

BLAIR: Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories for the Apollo moon landing and the early space shuttle program. President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her 33-year career at NASA. For Taraji Henson, playing such a formidable figure has been her hardest role yet.

HENSON: Math and science scares me. It makes my heart palpitate.

BLAIR: Sitting in her trailer in Atlanta on the set of "Hidden Figures" last spring, Henson said she was surprised she'd never heard of Katherine Johnson before reading Shetterly's book.

HENSON: I mean, you know, like, scientists, mathematicians know her, but the world needs to know her. And so I felt a little angry. Like, why hasn't this story been told?

BLAIR: Turns out there were many women, black and white, working as human computers at Langley. Getting ahead was something else altogether. Math and engineering were male dominated fields - still are. If you were a female and black, it was even tougher. Janelle Monae plays another of the hidden figures.

JANELLE MONAE: You know, these women were so brilliant because if they were off by one number, it could have caused a failure or caused a death in one of the astronauts in the rockets.

BLAIR: Monae plays Mary Jackson. In the 1950s, her extraordinary math talents were spotted by a leading NASA engineer. He offered her a promotion if she completed a few more classes. But the classes were only taught at Hampton, Va.'s, all-white high school.


MONAE: (As Mary Jackson) Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line - every time.

BLAIR: So Jackson petitioned the city of Hampton.

MONAE: Mary Jackson was very determined. She was not going to sit by and allow anyone to discriminate against her because she was a woman or she was African-American.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, we can - yours and mine.

BLAIR: The city granted Jackson a pass to attend the classes. In 1958, she became NASA's first African-American female engineer.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, we can. I feel it like lightning in the forest. Yes, we can.

BLAIR: Twenty-First Century Fox is drumming up as much attention as possible for "Hidden Figures," especially with audiences most affected by the subject matter, with screenings for engineering organizations, the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian's new African-American Museum of History and Culture.

And at 98 years old, legendary NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is giving interviews. She seems bemused by all of the fuss surrounding the movie. On her role in John Glenn's historic mission, she says she was just doing her job.

KATHERINE JOHNSON: It was just an assignment. I'm accustomed to being asked something. And I, of course, answered to the best of my ability and hoped that's the answer they were looking for.

BLAIR: But for black women working at Langley Research Center today, Johnson and the other hidden figures are heroes. And they're elated a Hollywood studio is telling their stories.

JULIE WILLIAMS-BYRD: Phenomenal (laughter). I loved it.

BLAIR: Engineer Julie Williams-Byrd attended a special screening for NASA employees in Hampton, Va. She says she feels connected to these women, especially engineer Mary Jackson.

WILLIAMS-BYRD: I feel Mary in my spirit (laughter). She went after it. She didn't let anything stop her, not even her husband. She had a dream. She had a vision. She had a goal. And that's one thing that we need to tell our young people. You know, don't let anything stop you. If you got a vision, go for it. You can do it.

BLAIR: Astronaut Yvonne Cagle is African-American. She says the movie was an emotional experience.

YVONNE CAGLE: It just brings everything full circle to me. It's my story. It's your story. It's our story. It's a conversation that talks about - even with limited thinking, dreaming is limitless. And if you prepare and you persevere, anything is possible.

BLAIR: Watching the stories of these African-American women, mathematicians and engineers, Cagle says, made her feel lifted up and off the planet.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


JANELLE MONAE AND PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) My heart's on fuego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.