I slipped away from work in the middle of the day and went to see the movie Hidden Figures. I splurged—got popcorn, diet cherry Coke, and peanut M&Ms. After all, it was lunch, too. I found an aisle seat and settled in. I kind of knew what to expect from the movie, but it was way more than what I expected. It was set in my time of growing up in the South. My children have no idea what it was like, and my grandchildren certainly have no clue.
It was 1961-62. I was a girl, in junior high, trying to step up from girl to teen. It was the year of the black leather jacket—if you didn’t have one, you were out. It was the year I had a royal blue knit outfit—tight skirt and matching top. I wore it with royal blue Piccolinos. Piccolinos were like little fairy shoes—flats with severely pointed toes and a whole lot of toe cleavage, and this was so long ago, you can’t google and find a picture of them, but all the girls had Piccolinos in every bright color. It was also the year that girls teased their hair. Even Barbie had a bouffant.
It was before Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came, before Vietnam was a living-room word; it was the year James Meredith integrated Ole Miss with the help of the National Guard. It was on the cusp of outward racial turbulence and the fight for civil rights, because in this free county, black people had no rights. They had separate public bathrooms and water fountains, separate schools, separate beauty shops and funeral homes. They could not use public libraries, and they did not vote. People had to pass a test and pay a poll tax to vote back then.
It was also the time of an intense race for space—outer space, that is. President Kennedy wanted a man on the moon during the decade of the 60s, and we couldn’t seem to get a man off the ground and into orbit. But the Russians could. Their 1957 Sputnik 1 was the world’s first satellite to orbit the earth. They were far ahead of us in science and technology. With their early Sputnik launches, they proved 1) they were winning the Space Race, and 2) they had rockets capable of launching nuclear weapons right on top of us. So the next year, 1958, NASA was formed, and the US committed men, money, and technology to competing and winning the Space Race. And IBM developed a mainframe computer that NASA installed right at the time of our first manned flight into orbit to compute the needed mathematical data. All these issues collide and overlap in the movie.
Before IBM’s involvement, all the math by NASA to figure launches, trajectories, and splashdown coordinates was done by human “computers,” or mathematicians. The movie is about a group of female Colored Computers, and it focuses on the stories of three African-American women. Hidden Figures is a true story about 1) women, 2) black women, and 3) black women in a world of white men / engineers only, giving viewers complex and complicated layers of issues to understand and follow. These three women cross all gender, race, and professional barriers as they dream big and push forward to go where no one else has ever gone.
Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson step up to the task, each in their own way, but all beginning as Colored Computers at the space flight center who commuted to work together. At the leading edge of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, they rise in the ranks of NASA along with the country’s greatest minds, tasked to calculate the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guarantee his safe return. [Spoiler Alert] Katherine was assigned to the room of flight engineers who did the launches of Atlas Friendship 7, the moon launch, and the later space shuttles. It was her calculations that got Glenn safely into orbit and safely home. Dorothy realized her job was going to be taken over by a computer, so when she wasn’t allowed to check out a library book on computer programming, she stole it (she paid taxes!) and became the expert and trainer on NASA mainframes. Mary became the first African-American woman engineer by going to court and getting permission to attend classes at an all-white school.
These women are real American heroes and an inspiration to all, regardless of gender, race, or profession. It takes a special kind of person to stand up, step up, speak up, trust herself to go into the unknown, and push herself to make history.