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The History Behind Hidden Figures 

Athena Sullins, Staff Writer

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Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” and its Oscar-nominated movie adaption have shed light on some seriously stellar ladies, integral to the early days of our space program, but there is more remarkable history behind this uplifting story. In the oppressive era of the 1940s, before the story of “Hidden Figures,” it was a serious challenge for African-American women to obtain jobs, let alone in male-dominated fields like engineering, computer science, and math. Yet in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring for federal work. This opened up opportunities for black women in the mathematics of aeronautics and later, careers in the space agency. Entire sections of women within NASA and its precursor worked as human “computers” who made complicated calculations by hand that were necessary for engineers doing theoretical work with equations. The machines we use today adopted that name and eventually made their jobs obsolete.

In the 1940s-50s, it was common for engineers to assign tasks to these women without connecting it to the bigger picture. It wasn’t until later that women would be assigned to specific engineering jobs. These women made their way into the industry largely due to the fact that the US was on the brink of entering World War II. The necessity of advancing the country’s aeronautical capabilities coupled with the loss of male workers to the army left women the natural choice for these jobs. Early computers worked for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in response to Russia’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Sputnik’s launch caused a panic which led to the inclusion of space research into the American program.

The movie features three women who worked as computers at Virginia’s NASA Langley Research Center, which was a “state-mandated segregated facility,” (the oldest NASA field center to date) in the early 60s. Black women at Langley were required to work in a separate area named West Computing. Katherine Johnson, a geometry specialist, was key in calculating the trajectories for John Glenn’s famous orbital flight in 1962 and later worked on Apollo trajectories. Dorothy Vaughan was NACA’s first black supervisor and one of the primary computer programmers. Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Women like these faced demeaning reminders that they were regarded as “second-class citizens” daily. They were designated separate bathrooms, and restricted access to meetings and even places in the dining hall. They were also subject to the threat of losing their jobs. At the time, it was custom for women to retire as soon as they were married or had children in order to stay home and become housewives. This made their jobs fleeting and many only remained at Langley for a few years. Scarcely any received promotions from computing.

Segregation began to dwindle throughout the 50s as discrepancy remained between state and federal law. It was not effectively ended until workers, instead of being grouped into pools, were assigned to specific offices and jobs. West Computing was dissolved in 1958.

Today, it is still unknown how many brilliant women worked to pioneer America’s presence in space travel as NACA/NASA computers. Studies estimate several hundred, but Shetterly’s conclusion is that the number reaches well into the thousands.

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The History Behind Hidden Figures