Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hidden Figures | The Women Behind NASA

Image via Fox 2000

You've heard about the Space Race, the Mercury, Apollo, Space Shuttle programs and the astronauts that defied belief; but what about the women behind it all? 

NASA has been a huge part of my life since I was a kid. I've been obsessed with everything and anything to do with space; whether it be the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle program, astronomy, and the technology and logic behind our ambition to head to the stars and beyond. It's always fascinated me and given me an overwhelming sense of comfort; when I feel my anxiety slowly cascading through my body, I look up at the moon and think, "we've been up there". If we can achieve something as mind-blowing as that, I can do anything. 

Recently, I've begun to appreciate the space program even more. As a kid, I didn't read much into the brains behind the technology. I was more fascinated on witnessing the launches than knowing who was behind it. But since I've been back to the Kennedy Space Center for the third time as an adult, my inner kid has begun to understand how her fascination came to be a reality. 

I'd never known about the women behind NASA. If I'm honest, I didn't even know that women were allowed to work on the space program in the 60s and before. To me, it always seemed to be a male orientated career back then, before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. As I've said, I was always more interested in the astronauts rather than the technicians, but being able to actually coherently read about the people behind the rockets during my last visit to the Space Center has intellectually mind-blowing. 

This was where I vaguely heard about the story of the women featured in Hidden Figures. Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American NASA employees who would provide mathematical insight into the space race, being the brains behind some of NASA's most important projects.

Portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Hustle & Flow, Person of Interest), Katherine Johnson is the focal point of the film's narrative. Johnson is an African American physicist, space scientist and mathematician. She was a fundamental importance to the United States' aeronautics and space programs, working as a human computer, otherwise known as 'computors'. Before NASA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it was known as NACA - the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. 

From 1953 to 1958, Johnson continued to work as a human computer, moving up to doing analysis such as calculating gust alleviation for aircraft. She was originally assigned to the West Area Computing Unit; an all-African American group of female mathematicians who worked at the NASA Langley Research Center. The group was eventually put in charge of Dorothy Vaughan - portrayed by Octavia Spencer (The Help, Get On Up, Smashed) - an African American mathematician who supervised Johnson. 

Image via Fox 2000

After the segregation of the computing pool was disbanded in 1958, Johnson begun to work as an aerospace technologist. She later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch, where she calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard's  - the first American in space - space flight in 1959. Johnson also worked on the Mercury Project; plotting navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.

When NASA begun to use electronic computers in 1962, Johnson was called upon to verify the computers numbers. She was personally asked to do this by John Glenn, one of NASA's first American astronauts to fly the Project Mercury spacecraft. He refused to fly unless Johnson was the one to verify the calculations. In 1970, she also worked on the Apollo 13 mission to the Moon, and later in her career she was involved with the Space Shuttle Program, the Earth Resources Satellite and the Mission to Mars.

The film also includes the renowned Mary Jackson portrayed by Janelle Monae Robinson (Singer, Rio 2, Moonlight). Jackson was an African-American mathematician and aerospace engineer at the NACA (and eventually NASA). She began her career alongside Johnson and Vaughan as a human computer at the Langley Research Center. In 1953, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division. After five years of taking countless additional courses she was promoted to aerospace engineer after joining a special training program. She began calculating and analyzing data from wind tunnel experiments at the Theoretical Aerodynamics Branch of the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division at Langely; understanding air flow, in addition to thrust and drag forces. 

Jackson was most known for her unwavering dedication to help women and other minorities to advance in their careers at NASA; advising them on how to study (like she had previously achieved) to change their employee titles from 'mathematician' to 'engineer' to increase their chances at promotion within the NASA career ladder. Jackson herself reached the highest level of engineer that was possible for her at NASA, without becoming a supervisor. After this, she decided to take a pay cut and become an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field, working to make change and help women and give them the ability to become known in their field. 

The film itself is based upon the book Hidden Figures, a nonfiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly about the group of African-American female mathematicians who helped NASA win the Space Race as human computers and engineers. The book will be released on September 9, and was originally chosen by the producers from just a 55-page book proposal. The script was developed by producer Donna Gigilotti and written by Allison Schroeder. Schroeder has been involved in the NASA culture for the majority of her life; her grandmother working as a white computer at Langley, and her father was an engineer who worked on the Mercury capsule, alongside Johnson. 

Hidden Figures is going to be a milestone in cinema, not only focusing on the importance of women in the NASA space program, but focusing on African-American women who struggled being a minority who were able to fight their way through the segregation and sexism to become the most important part of NASA. Without them, America's space program wouldn't be where it is today. 

Hidden Figures is set to be released on 13 January, 2017 via Fox 2000 Pictures. 

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