Hidden Figures: Celebrating the Math Geniuses Behind NASA’s Success

April 28, 2024
Hidden Figures: Celebrating the Math Geniuses Behind NASA’s Success

Table Of Contents

The 1960s space race was not only a challenge of engineering and physics but also of human intellect and resilience. “Hidden Figures” tells the real-life story of African American mathematicians Kathrine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, who played pivotal roles in NASA’s early space missions. These women, known as “human computers,” worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, where they made groundbreaking contributions under demanding circumstances due to racial and gender biases of the era.

Hidden Figures - A group of mathematicians work diligently at their desks, surrounded by stacks of papers and complex equations. Charts and diagrams cover the walls, displaying the intricate calculations required for space exploration

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” and the subsequent film adaptation shined a spotlight on these women, revealing their significant but previously uncelebrated roles in space exploration. They performed complex calculations by hand that enabled the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and ensured his safe return, among other achievements. Their stories highlight both their individual brilliance as mathematicians and the broader struggle for civil rights and gender equality.

Key Takeaways

  • “Hidden Figures” celebrates the crucial work of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan at NASA.
  • These mathematicians overcame gender and racial barriers to enable successful space missions.
  • Their legacy includes inspiring advancements in technology and equal opportunity in STEM fields.

The Dawn of NASA and NACA

A group of mathematicians work diligently in a bustling office, surrounded by chalkboards covered in complex equations and diagrams. The room is filled with the hum of calculators and the occasional sound of excited conversation as they solve the mathematical challenges of space exploration

Before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became the forefront of space exploration, it was preceded by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Created in 1915, NACA’s initial purpose was to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight. With the pressures of World War II, the demand for aviation technology surged, catapulting NACA to a pivotal role.

Their research primarily occurred at facilities like the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia, established in 1917. Here, a diverse workforce of engineers and mathematicians led pioneering efforts in aeronautic innovation, contributing substantially to air and space supremacy.

Math and computing were the backbones of Langley’s research pursuits. These disciplines were critical in solving complex aerodynamic problems and later in charting a course to the stars. During this era, NACA employed a group of brilliant female mathematicians— known as “human computers”— who performed calculations and data analysis by hand.

Post-WWII, the emergence of the Cold War and the space race signified a change in direction. The evolution from aeronautics to astronautics necessitated the expansion of NACA’s scope. Consequently, on October 1, 1958, NACA was dissolved and its assets and personnel transitioned into the newly formed NASA. This shift marked a new epoch — one that would cement the United States’ ambition and enthusiasm for space exploration.

The legacy of NACA and the progression into NASA represent a collaboration of brilliant minds united by a common quest to push the boundaries of humanity’s reach, laying the groundwork for extraordinary space-bound achievements.

Pioneers of Space and Math

Breaking the bounds of Earth and reaching for the stars has always required more than just courage and rockets; it has depended on the unparalleled brilliance of mathematicians who provided the foundation for space exploration. Among them, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan stand tall as luminaries who not only excelled in their mathematical endeavors but also paved the way for countless engineers and human computers with their tenacity and intellect.

Katherine Johnson’s Contributions

Katherine Johnson‘s exceptional talent in mathematics catapulted her to a pivotal role at NASA, where her calculations were critical for the success of many space missions. Most notably, Johnson’s work on trajectory analysis for John Glenn’s orbital mission, Friendship 7, was indispensable, ensuring his safe return to Earth. Her precision and expertise earned her a revered place in space exploration history.

  • Key Calculations:
    • Calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 flight to the Moon
    • Authored or coauthored 26 research reports during her career

Mary Jackson’s Journey

Mary Jackson, a gifted mathematician and engineer, shattered barriers as NASA’s first African American female engineer. Her journey, marked by overcoming segregation and discrimination, led her to influence the hiring and promotion of the next generations of engineers, particularly women and minorities. Her dedication to mentorship and education imbued NASA with a progressive spirit that reverberates to this day.

  • Contributions:
    • Instrumental to the improvement of the United States’ aeronautics.

Dorothy Vaughan’s Leadership

As NASA’s first African American manager, Dorothy Vaughan led and mentored a group of human computers who were integral to the United States’ space program. Her leadership and forward-thinking enabled her team to adapt to the cutting-edge IBM computers that revolutionized space calculations. Vaughan’s adaptability and vision were crucial to the efficient and effective advancement of space technology.

  • Major Roles:
    • Managed NASA’s West Area Computing Unit
    • Advocated for women computers to be promoted to engineers within NASA

Breaking Barriers

In the midst of a society gripped by segregation and gender biases, a group of African-American women at NASA surmounted formidable social barriers, altering the course of history and space exploration.

Overcoming Segregation at NASA

In the early 20th century, NASA, then known as NACA, mirrored the segregationist policies prevalent in Virginia. Despite the oppressive surroundings, the agency began hiring African-American women as part of the West Area Computers program. This effort, initiated due to a shortage of skilled mathematicians, marked the beginning of a monumental shift in inclusion and diversity at NASA.

West Area Computers

The West Area Computers were a group of women who played a critical role as human computers, calculating complex aeronautical equations by hand. Their work was pivotal to the success of many NASA missions, but they worked in a segregated unit overseen by Dorothy Vaughan, a remarkable African-American woman with a talent for leadership and mathematics.

Civil Rights Movements

Amid the broader Civil Rights Movement, change was unfolding within NASA, paralleling the fight for equality across the nation. Notable civil rights activists influenced transformative policies, like Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in the defense industry. As a result, these talented mathematicians eventually saw the walls of segregation crumble, allowing for greater integration and recognition of their skills and contributions to space exploration.

Influential Projects and Missions

The quest to conquer space has been marked by monumental projects and missions that not only pushed the boundaries of human capability but also showcased the extraordinary power of mathematics in plotting the pathways to the stars.

Project Mercury

Project Mercury was the United States’ first man-in-space program, meant to decisively respond to the Soviet Union’s foray into space. Its primary goal was to send an American astronaut into orbit and return them safely to Earth, a challenge that foregrounded the importance of precise trajectory calculations.

The Flight of John Glenn

One of Project Mercury’s most critical milestones was the flight of John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth. His mission was a pivotal moment in the Space Race, symbolizing American ingenuity and marking a significant advance in the strategic competition with the Soviet Union for supremacy in space. Calculations by human computers like Katherine Johnson were vital in plotting his orbital trajectories.

Apollo Missions

The Apollo Missions followed Project Mercury and further advanced human space exploration with a series of ambitious missions that culminated in Apollo 11’s historic moon landing. These missions demanded even more sophisticated trajectory calculations and technological prowess, cementing the United States’ position at the forefront of space exploration during a time when the Space Race extended to lunar aspirations.

Technological and Methodical Advances

The race to space prompted massive technological strides, notably in the realm of computing, which was vital for tackling complex trajectory calculations and optimizing flight experiments.

Development of FORTRAN

FORTRAN, an acronym for Formula Translation, was one of the earliest programming languages designed specifically to handle complex mathematical equations. Its creation marked a significant methodological advancement in computing during the space race era. Pioneered in the 1950s, FORTRAN revolutionized the way astronauts and engineers at NASA approached trajectory analysis, turning intricate hand-written equations into sophisticated, solvable problems by computers.

New Frontiers in Computing

The computing landscape during the space race underwent radical changes with the introduction of powerful mainframe computers. These technological marvels were instrumental in managing the enormous amounts of data necessary for space missions. West Virginia State College was where notable mathematicians such as Katherine Johnson honed their skills, and their expertise played a pivotal role in advancing computing methods that would lay the groundwork for modern computational techniques used in analyzing spaceflight dynamics.

Wind Tunnels and Flight

Wind tunnels emerged as indispensable tools in the development of space vehicles, allowing engineers to physically simulate flight conditions on Earth. By using these facilities, researchers could test aerodynamic properties and refine designs based on empirical data. Various flight experiments took place in these controlled environments, contributing critical information that shaped the aerodynamics of rockets and spacecraft, ensuring their stability and efficiency during the ascent through the atmosphere and re-entry.

Legacies and Honors

A group of diverse mathematicians work together to solve complex equations, surrounded by charts and diagrams. Their dedication and intelligence shine through as they make groundbreaking contributions to space exploration

The mathematicians behind NASA’s early successes have been recognized with prestigious awards and captured in popular media, cementing their legacy in history and culture.

Presidential Medals and Recognitions

Several of the brilliant minds from NASA’s “Hidden Figures” have received Presidential Medals of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. Katherine Johnson, a mathematician whose calculations were critical for historic spaceflights, was awarded the medal in 2015 by President Barack Obama for her groundbreaking work.

In Popular Culture

The story of these pioneering women was adapted into a critically acclaimed film, “Hidden Figures”, which has garnered several award nominations including Oscars. The performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe brought the powerful narratives of these mathematicians to a wide audience, spotlighting their contributions to space exploration and their critical role in propelling humankind beyond Earth. Spencer received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal in the film, further honoring the real women who inspired the story.

Impact on Education and Further Generations

A group of mathematicians work diligently at their desks, surrounded by stacks of papers and complex equations. Charts and graphs cover the walls, showcasing their groundbreaking contributions to space exploration

The influence of Hidden Figures extends beyond cinematic accomplishment, becoming a seminal reference point in championing diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, and addressing past racial discrimination by amplifying the stories of those who overcame it.

Inspiring Future STEM Professionals

The narrative of Hidden Figures underscores the remarkable achievements of African American mathematicians at NASA during the space race, notably in West Virginia schools where resources were scarce due to racial discrimination. These stories illuminate the journey of overcoming adversity to thrive in the field of physical science. They serve as a beacon, encouraging underrepresented minorities to pursue college degrees in STEM. The real-life protagonists, by example, have shown that with talent and determination, educational opportunities can be seized and barriers can be broken.

Educational Reform and Opportunities

Following the film’s release, there have been concerted efforts to better integrate the oft-untold narrative of these pioneering women into educational curricula. This has led to expanded educational opportunities for students across various demographics, inspiring a more diverse generation to explore careers in space and related physical sciences. Colleges have started to reinforce their commitment to offering programs that support students of all backgrounds, working to ensure that the next generation of STEM professionals is as diverse as the world they aim to explore. The Hidden Figures story not only serves as a tool in educational reform but also as a catalyst for broader societal understanding of the value that diversity brings to education, innovation, and progress.

Beyond Hidden Figures

The story of “Hidden Figures” brought to light the pivotal contributions of black women mathematicians at NASA during key moments in space history. Their remarkable achievements paved the way for future generations to dream, achieve, and continue breaking barriers in the pursuit of space exploration and the American Dream.

Continuing the Legacy

Years after the era of “Hidden Figures,” the impact of these remarkable NASA workers endures, inspiring both a greater presence of black women in STEM fields and the advancement of equal opportunity initiatives within aerospace sectors. Their legacy is evident in the committed individuals who tread their path as mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, making invaluable contributions to space missions and research. The commitment of these modern heroes ensures that the pursuit of knowledge and exploration is an inclusive journey, reflecting a diverse workforce united in the mission of progressing humanity’s reach into the cosmos.

Every day, they carry the torch ignited by Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and many others, embodying the essence of the American Dream with every innovation and discovery. Whether refining flight trajectories for future Mars missions or developing technology for sustainable life in space, these torchbearers are critical to pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Aspiring to not only continue but also expand their legacy, NASA and other space agencies actively work to foster inclusive environments where every bright mind has the opportunity to contribute to humanity’s spacefaring narrative.

Frequently Asked Questions

A group of mathematicians surrounded by complex equations and space diagrams, working together to solve problems and make groundbreaking discoveries in space exploration

The stories of the brilliant mathematicians behind NASA’s space missions are compelling and full of scientific rigor. This section answers some of the most pressing questions about the real-life heroes and the film that brought their story to the silver screen.

Who were the real-life mathematicians portrayed in ‘Hidden Figures’?

The film ‘Hidden Figures’ portrays the lives of three pioneering African-American women at NASA: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. These women were instrumental to the success of several key NASA missions during the Space Race.

How accurate is ‘Hidden Figures’ in its depiction of historical events?

While ‘Hidden Figures’ takes some creative liberties for narrative purposes, the film is largely accurate in its depiction of the key events and challenges faced by the lead characters. It effectively captures the essence of the racial and gender dynamics of the time.

What are the contributions of Katherine Johnson to space exploration as shown in ‘Hidden Figures’?

Katherine Johnson’s mathematical genius proved critical for the success of John Glenn’s orbital mission, as she performed complex calculations to help plot the Mercury spacecraft’s trajectory.

Which actors portrayed the lead characters in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’?

Taraji P. Henson played Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer took on the role of Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe portrayed Mary Jackson. These actors brought depth and authenticity to their portrayals of the real-life figures.

Was the character of Al Harrison based on a real person in the context of ‘Hidden Figures’?

Al Harrison’s character, played by Kevin Costner, is a composite of several NASA supervisors. The film uses his character to represent the leadership and challenges at NASA during that era.

What significant mathematical calculations are featured in ‘Hidden Figures’?

Hidden Figures’ showcases the mathematical work that went into calculating launch windows, plotting navigation courses, and ensuring safe re-entry for NASA’s spacecraft. These calculations were pivotal for the successful missions depicted in the movie.

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