We’re only two major Hollywood awards ceremonies into awards season and there is a buzz about the biopic Hidden Figures which is based on Margot Lee Shetterley’s book of the same name - reviewed here. Already collecting Golden Globes and SAG Awards, Hidden Figures is a strong contender for the upcoming Oscars Awards having received three nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Celebrating not only diversity in the film industry but also by extension, in the science industry, we think this film is definitely one for your watch list this February.
Based on the story of three of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) a precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s first ‘human computers’, Hidden Figures explores the lives and works of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who were responsible for the success of some of NASAs most successful historic missions.
Employed as part of then President Franklin Roosevelt’s drive to grow the federal workforce in America at a time when the world was at war, these women had achieved college degrees in mathematics, physics and engineering and were tasked with supporting the development of the human space flight programme. Athough they had achieve the same level of education as their male counterparts, working in the South in the midst of segregation meant that they were not given equal pay and were forced to work in the West wing of the NACA’s Langely campus, using separate eating and bathroom facilities. This led to them becoming known as ‘The West Area Computers’.
Exemplary mathematicians and scientific minds, Hidden Figures highlights the struggle of these three women to gain the recognition they have deserved all of their lives and demonstrates what can be achieved if we remain unified.
Here’s a little more on the three key figures in this film:
Katherine Johnson: Johnson is an African-American physicist and mathematician who contributed to work in aeronautics at NASA. In a career that spanned decades, Johnson worked with early application digital computers and calculated flight trajectories, launch windows and emergency return routes for missions including Project Mercury (which includes the mission of John Glenn depicted in the film) and the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon through the space shuttle programme. Her calculations proved to be vital to the success of the missions. She was also involved in producing calculations for a planned mission to Mars. Katherine Johnson is portrayed by Taraji P Henson in the film adaptation.
Dorothy Vaughan: Vaughan was an African-American mathematician who worked at NACA. She became the supervisor of ‘The West Area Computers’. She was the first African-American woman to supervise staff at the centre. During her career which spanned twenty eight years, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers to the centre by teaching herself and her staff the computer programming language of FORTRAN. She later headed the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at the centre. Dorothy Vaughan is portrayed in the film by Octavia Spencer.
Mary Jackson: Jackson was an African-American mathematician and engineer at NASA. She started as a ‘computer’ in the ‘West Area Computer’ division at Langley and took advanced engineering classes which led to her becoming the first black female engineer at NASA. Mary Jackson is portrayed in the film by Janelle Monae.
Watch the trailer for Hidden Figures, released in UK cinemas this month