Breaking the Barriers: The Untold Story of Hidden Figures
Editor's Note: This article is written by Ashley, owner of Ashley Saturn. Ashley is an aspiring astrophysicist student here in Atlanta. AshleySaturn, her blog, is a collection of all things science, NASA, never give up, and astronomy filled news! After hearing that she'd seen Hidden Figures more than 3X, I knew that I had to ask her insights, and thoughts of this groundbreaking film! - Holy, EIC.
Before we had the luxury of calling those handy devices that get us through our daily lives “computers,” there was something else that went by that name. At the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now known as NASA), that name was used to describe the role of some of the brightest women in America. Growing up, when I would think of NASA, I pictured a bunch of white men in suits and glasses working in a control room, doing whatever they could to advance humans into space. Those were the images I was shown on TV and those were the people I learned about in school.
You can imagine my astonishment when I learned that not only were there women in the space program that computed complex algorithms (by hand), but that many of these “computers” were black women. It was the same feeling I got in college when I discovered, in my Africana Studies class, that there were African Americans that ran for and held positions in political offices during the Reconstruction era! It made me angry that I was never taught about these pioneers, and at the same time, I felt empowered that my ancestors were bold enough to break racial barriers. The people of color in these positions did not have the same amount power as their white counterparts. Any accomplishments they made were either downplayed or entirely wiped from our history books. This is what makes the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson so compelling. It is a story hidden beneath a racist and misogynistic past.
Ever since its release, the response to Hidden Figures has been incredible. The film has gone on to win many awards including the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a cast in a Motion Picture and three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture in 2017. It grossed more than $215 million worldwide and Pharrell Williams adds another win to the film by producing and performing songs for the soundtrack!
As you are on your journey, whether it be photography, graphic design, web development, or astrophysics, remember that you are not alone.
Ashley, of Ashleysaturn.com
Hidden Figures, stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson; three intelligent women that left their marks on NASA’s Langley Space Center during their time of employment. Adapted from Margaret Lee Sheterly’s best selling novel, the movie takes place during the Cold War’s race to space against the Soviet Union. When the Soviets succeed in launching the first man into space, NASA begins to panic and more pressure is placed on the team to put a US man into orbit. Henson gives a moving performance as the incredibly bright mathematician, Katherine Johnson, that can “handle any numbers you throw in front of her.” After being promoted to the Space Task Group, she is assigned to calculate the launching and landing trajectories for Captain John Glenn’s first orbit into space. However, Katherine must first learn to hold her ground while working side by side in a segregated room full of men.
Set in 1961, the film does an amazing job capturing the racial tensions within the US. Everyday the women are faced with the harsh realities of never getting the full credit they deserve. Octavia Spencer’s character Dorothy Vaughan supervises a department of 30 African American women in the segregated West Computing Group. Although Dorothy steps up to the role as supervisor, she is not immediately granted the official title or pay. Meanwhile, Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is on the path of growing from a mathematician to an engineer. First, she must achieve the requirements for entering NASA’s engineer training program, including graduate level math and physics classes at the segregated University of Virginia. Together, all three women tackle these challenges with grace and determination.
As a woman of color in the STEM field, we risk the possibility of experiencing sexism and racism. One lesson that this film teaches is that we can’t let it stop us. This is a story about jumping over hurdle after hurdle until you reach your end goal. Owning your journey is realizing that whatever you are facing is not going to be easy, but with the right amount of determination you will be able to accomplish anything. When I began my blog, AshleySaturn, my goal was to encourage women to not be intimidated by the field of astrophysics. Had I been exposed to the story of NASA’s hidden figures and other achievements by women in the STEM field earlier in my life, their success would have been normalized for me. I still become frustrated when I think about how these women’s stories are just now being told. However, I don’t let that hinder my drive. It motivates me to flip the script and celebrate the women in my community that are doing great things.