Thursday, 26 May 2016

Hidden Figures

I came across an article a few days ago on a film that's being made, called Hidden Figures, and it immediately piqued my interest. It tells the true story of African-American women who were mathematicians and parts of NASA's space program during the Civil Rights era.

In a bid to stay ahead of Russia in the space race, the agency hired the smartest people they could find. After World War II, federal agencies had to cope with the shortage of male candidates by hiring actual, real-life women. Shocking, I know. Women were seen as being more detail-oriented, with small hands that were better suited to repetitive tasks on the adding machines, and came with advantage of being paid less than a man for the same job. This also freed the male engineers they did have up for the more "serious" and analytical projects.

So, not only did agencies like NASA have to start hiring women, they also had to start hiring African-American women.

Despite the skill of these women, segregation and isolation still reigned; women were placed in separate rooms from men, and the black women were separated from the white women, and nicknamed "coloured computers". During lunch breaks, they had to sit at a "coloured" table in the cafeteria.

A few years into the program, the unmarried white women were housed in a fancy dorm, while the unmarried black women were left to find their own accommodation in town.

It's no secret that history is full of white-washing, and it's important that stories like this are told. There are probably so many other stories like this that we don't even know about yet, so many people who never got the credit they deserved.

As I said, I found this whole story interesting, and decided to write about three of the women who'll be portrayed in Hidden Figures.
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) worked as a mathematician. In 1938, she became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University, and was hired by NASA in 1953. She was one of the many women who were essentially the agency's "living computers" - replaced when actual machines became available.

Among her achievements are calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard's flight, making him the first American in space, and calculating the trajectory for Apollo 11, which took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, they asked Johnson to verify the numbers.

Johnson would also plot back-up navigational charts for astronauts, in case of electronic failures.

In 2015, she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to America's Space Race.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) also worked as a mathematician. She started working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943. In 1949, she was promoted and became the agency's first black supervisor, and one of very few women supervisors. She used her position to help other women progress through the agency, helping them to get the promotions or pay rises they deserved, and worked in that role for nearly a decade.

In 1958, segregated facilities were abolished. Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division, a racially and gender-integrated group working with electronic computing, and became an expert FORTRAN programmer. She retired from NASA in 1971.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) began her career as another "computer", specialising in reducing data from wind tunnel experiments and from aircraft data on various flight experiments. Throughout her career, she was aware that minorities and women weren't advancing as fast as they should have been, and started analysing the data to see what was holding them back. She found that, in addition to the obvious glass ceiling, a lot of time it was simply down to lacking a course or not being given the right assignments, and set about discreetly advising women on what they needed to do to go from Mathematician to Engineer.

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