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)