There wasn’t a chapter dedicated to them in your middle school American history books. And although these women helped shift our culture forward, they aren’t regularly celebrated as trailblazers.
Well … that was until the release of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” and the eponymous film.
Because of the movie (which was pulled from a book of the same name) the three women are finally getting the widespread recognition they deserve.
They were known as the “computers in skirts,” and they worked behind the scenes at NASA, in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Their meticulous calculations helped the United States catch up in the “space race” and send John Glenn into orbit around Earth.
1. Katherine Johnson
Johnson, a brilliant mathematician had begun working at NASA in its earliest days, beginning in the 1950s. Her mind was so trusted, in fact, that NASA says Glenn called for Johnson to check the complex trajectory calculations made by the computer before launching the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962.
“Get the girl, check the numbers,” Glenn said, referring to Johnson. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”
Johnson, who was born and raised in West Virginia, says she’s always had an obsessive fascination with numbers.
“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”
While many of her classmates were unable to complete their educations because of needing to help their families, Johnson sped through school thanks to her incredible gift. She was ready to enter high school by the age of 10, and her father moved the family in order to make sure his daughter met her full potential.
She graduated from West Virginia State College at 18 and began working as a teacher. In 1953, she found work at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had begun hiring Black women during World War II. The agency was so impressed by the women’s skills, it continued to do so after the war.
Eventually, Johnson was able to put her incredible mind to work for NASA at the Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department. She went on to work on the Redstone, Mercury, and Apollo space programs; calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Glenn’s historic orbit. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.
2. Dorothy Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan paved the way for minorities, including Johnson, by becoming NASA’s first Black manager.
Dorothy was born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. She excelled in school and graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1926.
She left her position as a teacher during World War II to work at Langley, in what she believed would be a temporary position. However, she stayed on after the war and was asked to lead the West Area Computing Unit after Jim Crow laws required segregation of the Black women from their white counterparts.
Vaughan headed the division for 9 years, from 1949 until 1958. She continued to use her incredible skills in an integrated computer division and became an expert programmer, contributing to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program before retiring in 1971. She died in 2008.
3. Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson was NASA’s first Black female engineer.
Born in Virginia in 1921, Mary was another extraordinary scientist who worked closely with Johnson and Vaughan. Like them, she joined Langley after working as a teacher.
In the 1950s, she experimented with processing data from wind tunnels and flights. Eventually, she joined a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer, which required taking classes at the University of Virginia in addition to her work. In 1958, she became NASA’s first Black female engineer.
After 34 years, Jackson took a job in NASA’s Equal Opportunity office, making changes to benefit female workers until her retirement in 1985. She died in 2005.
The recently released movie based on these remarkable women’s lives has garnered three Oscar nominations, one SAG Award for best cast in a motion picture, two weeks on top of the box office, and over $80 million in gross ticket sales so far.