Hollywood space flicks typically feature one type of hero: astronauts who defy the odds to soar into space and back again. But now a group of behind-the-scenes heroes from the early days of the U.S. space program are getting their due. Black female mathematicians performed essential calculations to safely send astronauts to and from Earth’s surface — in defiance of flagrant racism and sexism.
These “computers” — as they were known before the electronic computer came into widespread use — are the subject of Hidden Figures. The film focuses on three black women — Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — and their work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., during the run-up to John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962.
A mathematics virtuoso, Katherine Johnson calculated or verified the flight trajectories for many of the nation’s space milestones. The film showcases her work on two: the first American in space (Alan Shepard), and the first American to orbit the Earth (John Glenn). But Johnson also had a hand in sending the first men to the moon, during the Apollo 11 mission, and when the Apollo 13 astronauts ran into trouble, Johnson worked on the calculations that helped them get home safely.
Mary Jackson worked on wind tunnel experiments at Langley, where she tested how spacecraft performed under high winds. The film follows Jackson as she overcomes obstacles of the Jim Crow era to become NASA’s first black female engineer. Though the movie focuses on her triumphant rise, after decades in that role, Jackson grew frustrated with the remaining glass ceilings and moved into an administrative role, helping women and minorities to advance their careers at NASA.
Johnson and Jackson got their start under the leadership of Dorothy Vaughan, who led the segregated group of “colored computers,” assigning black women to assist with calculations in various departments. As electronic computers became more essential Vaughan recognized their importance and became an expert programmer. A scene where she surreptitiously takes a book from whites-only section of a public library — a guide to the computing language FORTRAN — is a nod to Vaughan’s prowess with the language.
Electronic computers were so unfamiliar in the 1960s that everyone from engineers to astronauts felt more confident when a human computer calculated the numbers. After a room-sized IBM mainframe spits out figures for his trajectory, John Glenn requests, “Get the girl to check the numbers” — meaning Johnson. In the film, that request culminates in Johnson running a frantic last-minute check of the numbers and sprinting across the Langley campus while Glenn waits. In reality, that process took a day and a half.
For spaceflight fans, Hidden Figures provides an opportunity to be immersed in a neglected perspective. The women’s stories are uplifting, their resilience impressive and their retorts in response to those who underestimate them, witty.
But viewers should be aware that, although the main facts underpinning the plot are correct, liberties have been taken. Some of the NASA higher-ups in the film — including Johnson’s supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) — are not real people. And presumably because number crunching tends to be a bit thin in the suspense department, the filmmakers have dramatized some scenes — Johnson is pictured in Mission Control during Glenn’s flight, but in reality she watched it on television — which seems a shame because the contributions of these women don’t need to be exaggerated to sound momentous.