The ‘Hidden Figures’ Behind John Glenn’s Successful Orbit

Three unknown women helped NASA succeed as few others did

Even NASA employees once looked at computers with cocked heads and confused eyes. “Hidden Figures,” a film opening wide on Friday, Jan. 6, takes a look at a pivotal time in NASA’s history when chalkboards and pen-and-paper calculations first began their mutation into the digital world.

The film follows the story of three unsung heroes of NASA’s past — women who played significant roles in helping the late astronaut John Glenn become the first person to orbit the Earth in 1962. There was Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Malone) — all women whose lives and work were chronicled in the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

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Before computers were used to do just about everything from check the time to order fast food, NASA had “human computers,” employees who would do the mathematical number-crunching the higher-ups may not have had the time to do.

During the ’60s, NASA was just taking its first steps into the digital world, with gargantuan IBM computer mainframes — and many found them to be untrustworthy head-scratchers coming at a very bad time: the space race. Many women like Vaughan found an opportunity in the digital machines by learning them more quickly than everyone else — and becoming more valuable employees. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson showed their worth during that period and broke new ground, both as women and as African-Americans.

Jim Parsons, who portrays a fictional engineer in the film, told space.com that “Hidden Figures” is “a movie that is very much on the surface about the early years of NASA and getting a man into space. And it highlights three people who, because they were women and because they were African-American, didn’t get the credit they deserved for their input or contribution to this.”

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Johnson, the main focus of the three in the movie, was initially a “human computer” segregated to a separate wing at NASA, where she, along with other African-American women, would calculate trajectories for future orbital launches. Her friends, Vaughan and Jackson, were a computer programmer and an engineer, respectively. The launch for which she so furiously calculated was America’s first one into space, piloted by the late astronaut John Glenn.

Johnson was known for her unparalleled talent with numbers, with Glenn even insisting once that she double-check the work of a computer. Though many know the story of the space race, “Figures” is a different look at a definitive time in American history.

“What was it like for somebody who was sitting there, cranking away at calculations and stuff? And if they’re a black woman living in Tidewater, Virginia, what was that like? How did that work?” NASA chief historian Bill Barry told space.com about the film’s unique perspective of its three main characters.

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The work these women did to help put John Glenn into orbit represented steps forward for women, African-Americans and America. Katherine Johnson, now 98, is impressed with the way her life’s story has finally been told. She told the Daily Press, “It sounded good … It sounded very, very accurate.”

She even has advice for women today who may find inspiration in her story and her integral role in helping America accomplish something unifying and defining. “Whatever you do, just do it to the best of your abilities. It worked for me. It’ll work for you.”

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