One gi­ant leap

It wasn’t ex­actly front-page news at the time, but a new film re­veals the sig­nif­i­cant role three women played in our his­tory, against all odds


Meet the three amaz­ing women be­hind as­tro­naut John Glenn’s 1962 or­bit of the Earth

The date is 20th Fe­bru­ary, 1962. As­tro­naut John Glenn pre­pares for the most im­por­tant day of his life. With his crew-cut blond hair, blue eyes and 100-watt smile, Glenn is the all-amer­i­can hero. He will be the first Amer­i­can man to or­bit Earth, mak­ing his­tory and restor­ing the pride of the Amer­i­can peo­ple in the bat­tle for space supremacy with the Sovi­ets.

One hun­dred and thirty-five mil­lion tune in to watch the launch, cap­ti­vated as the tiny, silent fig­ure of Glenn waves and climbs into a metal cap­sule. What the na­tion doesn’t re­alise is that their hero would not have con­sid­ered putting his life on the line were it not for the work of a bril­liant young African-amer­i­can math­e­ma­ti­cian: Kather­ine John­son.

This is the story of Hid­den Fig­ures, a film that cel­e­brates the

un­sung heroines of the space race. John­son is played by Taraji P Hen­son who felt in­censed that John­son’s achieve­ments had been ig­nored by his­tory. “Had I known, maybe I would’ve dreamed of be­com­ing a rocket sci­en­tist,” she says. “That’s some kind of power, to know that you sent men where no men have gone.”

John­son toiled be­hind the scenes at NASA, pro­cess­ing reams of raw num­bers into us­able data. In an era when sex­ism and racism were ever-present, she worked qui­etly and dili­gently, with no recog­ni­tion. The state of Vir­ginia was still seg­re­gated at the time. There were ‘coloured’ wa­ter foun­tains, seg­re­gated schools and racist abuse around ev­ery cor­ner. But John­son’s ex­tra­or­di­nary brain brought down bar­ri­ers around her.

The film also tells the story of Dorothy Vaughan (Oc­tavia Spencer), the first fe­male African-amer­i­can su­per­vi­sor at Langley, and Mary Jack­son (Janelle Monáe), the first black fe­male aero­space en­gi­neer.

“I thought this was fic­tion,” Spencer says. “I’ve seen footage from that era. There weren’t any women any­where in sight.”

With the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal land­scape di­vided, di­rec­tor Theodore Melfi feels we need this story now. “The most im­por­tant thing for me was that these women were just like you and I. Kather­ine John­son was a sin­gle mom. Their home lives were as im­por­tant as the NASA work.”

NASA his­to­rian Bill Barry re­veals that de­ci­sion to em­ploy women was fi­nan­cial; they could process the same data as men but were paid a frac­tion of their wage. Dur­ing World War II, the need for labour meant the doors to Langley qui­etly opened to African-amer­i­can women.

In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan was the first black woman to work at NASA. She was seg­re­gated from white col­leagues; forced to eat sep­a­rately, and use ‘coloured’ bath­rooms – a mile away from her desk.

Sex­ism was rife. This, af­ter all, was the Mad

Men era. The credit for women’s work was rou­tinely claimed by male col­leagues. “Be­cause this was women’s work, it was re­garded as sub-pro­fes­sional,” ex­plains Mar­got Lee Shet­terly, who wrote the book on which the film is based. “John­son fought to have her name recog­nised.”

A maths prodigy, John­son grad­u­ated high school at 14 and, at 19, was the first black woman to at­tend grad­u­ate school at West Vir­ginia Univer­sity. As­sertive, but never ag­gres­sive, she was, as Taraji P Hen­son says, “a quiet storm”. Watch­ing the film, it’s heart­break­ing to see John­son have doors slammed in her face, and be forced to make cof­fee from a sep­a­rate ‘coloured’ ket­tle. And this hap­pened just 55 years ago. Kather­ine John­son is now 98 years old and, in 2015, was pre­sented with the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom by Barack Obama, to ac­knowl­edge her work.

“Oh, that was so ex­cit­ing,” John­son says now. Watch­ing your strug­gles play out on the big screen must be a bizarre ex­pe­ri­ence, but John­son is philo­soph­i­cal. “I was so happy to see the film, and thought Taraji played me very well,” she says. “Peo­ple will learn a lot. It shows girls that, if they want to do this kind of work, they can. At NASA they never had to ask me to do some­thing again. They knew if I gave them an an­swer, that was the right one. It is about be­ing pre­pared, so when an op­por­tu­nity presents it­self you’re ready to take it.”

It was this un­flap­pable at­ti­tude that won her ac­cess to the all-male clas­si­fied meet­ings. “Is there a law against it?” she re­peat­edly asked, when told there was no pro­to­col for a woman to at­tend the meet­ings. The men even­tu­ally con­ceded that, yes, per­haps this com­mit­ted, bril­liant woman should at­tend the top-se­cret brief­ings. It was one small vic­tory in a life­time of pro­fes­sional strug­gles, but a gi­ant leap for wom­ankind. Hid­den Fig­ures is re­leased on Fri­day 17th Fe­bru­ary

John­son’s work (played by Taraji P Hen­son) put Buzz Aldrin (above) on the moon

New film Hid­den Fig­ures tells the story of Mary Jack­son (far right), Kather­ine John­son (be­low) and Dorothy Vaughan (in­set, on left)

CLOCK­WISE, FROM LEFT: The “hu­man com­put­ers” at Langley; as­tro­naut John Glenn; Hen­son as John­son; Oc­tavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan

John­son (left, in 1980) was awarded the Medal of Free­dom by Pres­i­dent Bar­rack Obama in 2015 (right)

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