The Women Behind ‘Hidden Figures’

Why NASA hired women, how the three protagonists navigated segregation laws and what we can take away from the film.

By Laura RiceJanuary 13, 2017 7:28 am

The movie “Hidden Figures”, based on a book by the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, features three African-American women and how they changed NASA around the time of the space race to the moon.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) are credited with opening doors for women in color across the industry.

Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson worked together in the 1960s at NASA Langley in Virginia during a time of Jim Crow laws and racial tensions in the south. The film chronicles their work on the flight trajectories that put John Glenn into orbit around the earth.

The film has been noted as one of the top 10 films of 2016 by the National Board of Review and won two nominations at the recent Golden Globes for Best Original Score and Octavia Spencer as Best Supporting Actress.

Gail Langevin, NASA Historian based at Langley, gives us the facts behind the movie.

“The spirit and the flavor and the life stories of the three main characters is absolutely true,” Langevin says.

The movie does compress the original structure and timeline of history. Langevin says the movie also made some of the background characters into composites of real people in the story and made up some characters to reflect the views of the time period.

On why women were hired to do the actual equation computation at NASA:

“One, it was thought that women would pay closer attention to the fine detail of doing multiple equations over and over again. That did prove to be true, but there was also the fact that women were generally paid less so the higher-paid engineers could spend more of their time designing tests, thinking about theories. The actual time-consuming part of doing mathematical work was delegated to the women.”

How segregation laws in Virginia affected the women:

“For the most part, these laws were followed. But different people had different experiences. … In Mary Jackson’s case, she did experience some push back with as far as having segregated bathrooms. Katherine Johnson reports – and she started work in 1953 – that she experienced none of that.”

Vaughan, Jackson and Johnson’s careers after the time period shown in the movie:

“Dorothy Vaughan, who was the first black supervisor for NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] and NASA – she transitioned to become a Fortran programmer. She went on to contribute to the Scout Rocket program.

“Mary Jackson did indeed become the first black female engineer at all of NASA and she went on to have a very successful career. And then after that, she stepped down to become a member of the Office of Equal Opportunity, where she worked very hard to encourage women and African Americans to move into the professional research or engineer field.

“Katherine Johnson transitioned to become an aerospace technologist. She went on to work on the Apollo trajectory for getting the Lunar Lander down to the surface and back up to the command module. She went on to look at orbits of the earth-observing satellites and to work on the space shuttle.”

What the story can tell us today:

“Something that I heard Katherine Johnson say many times: ‘At the time I just knew I was doing my job and I needed to do it to the best of my ability, so that’s what I did.’ And I think that is one of the things we can get from this movie.”