On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel into space. This terrified the United States, who wanted to be the first nation to get to the moon. NASA's entire focus then became getting John Glenn into space and winning the space race.
So what exactly did African-American women do at NASA? Starting in the 1940s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the end of racial discrimination in federal jobs, these women came to work as literal human computers.
With the space race in full gear, trajectories needed to be calculated for all types of rockets. Pencils in hand, the women were called the "West Computers" because they worked in the west end of the Langley campus. Blacks and whites were still mostly segregated at this time.
Dorothy Vaughan's career at NASA spanned nearly three decades. Born in 1910, she first worked as a high school mathematics teacher before going to the Langley Research Center in 1943, where she stayed until 1971. She and her husband, Howard Vaughan, also raised their four children during this time.
Once electronic computers came to NASA, Vaughan learned to code, becoming proficient in the computer language FORTRAN, which was developed by IBM in the 1950s. Knowing that many human computers would soon be replaced by machines, she urged other women to learn computer programming. She also worked on the Scout Project, a series of rockets developed to launch satellites into space. Vaughan retired at age 60 and died Nov. 10, 2008. She was 98.
Born in 1921, Mary Jackson also worked as a schoolteacher before coming to NASA in 1951. After five years and completing some specialized engineering classes, she was promoted to aerospace engineer, literally becoming a rocket scientist. She's also known for her work analyzing wind tunnels, and she authored many technical papers.
After more than three decades at NASA, Jackson wanted to focus on helping other African-American women break through the glass ceiling. Though her salary was less, she became an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field to help other women turn their title of mathematician to engineer. She also volunteered as a Girl Scout leader for more than 20 years. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83.
Numbers have always been very important to Katherine Johnson. "I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted, I did," said Johnson. She was born in 1918, and her high intelligence level shot her through school like a rocket. She was in high school at age 10, then graduated college at age 18. First a teacher, then a mom, Johnson came to NASA in 1953. Astronaut John Glenn didn't trust the new IBM computer NASA was using and requested that Johnson recheck the calculations. Both she and the electronic computer were correct, and Glenn successfully orbited Earth.
At NASA, Johnson also helped calculate the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon before working on the space shuttle program. She's considered one of the most honored and respected African-American scientists.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest ranking civilian award. In 2016, she was again honored when Langley named a $30 million computational research facility after her. Johnson, who is 98 years old, lives in Virginia.
On Dec. 1, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden awarded former computers, including Katherine Johnson and Christine Richie, the Langley West Computing Unit Group Achievement. Afterward, they were able to attend a screening of Hidden Figures.
John Glenn's story was also included in Hidden Figures. Born in 1921, John Glenn started his career in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program during World War II and flew 59 combat missions during the war. He later flew 63 missions in Korea. As one of NASA's original seven Mercury astronauts, he's most famous for being the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.
After resigning from being an astronaut in 1964, Glenn went on to work as an executive for the soft drink company Royal Crown. In 1974, he decided to get into politics and ran for senator of Ohio. He served four successful terms, but he hadn't given up his fascination for space exploration. In 1998, he flew a nine-day mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He was 77 at the time, making him the oldest man ever to go into space. Sadly, Glenn died on Dec. 8, before he had a chance to see Hidden Figures. He was 95.
Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book Hidden Figures inspired the film of the same name. The nonfiction book is based on oral interviews, extensive research and archival information. In 20th Century Fox press materials, Shetterly, who's also a producer on the film, said she was incredibly impressed by what these women could do with their brains and a pencil.
"There's more computing power in a toaster today than was available in the 1960s, yet we were able to send a man into space, then to the moon. That is because raw computing power came from these women," Shetterly said.
Not only is Pharrell Williams a producer on the film, he also contributed two songs. The first one, called "Runnin'," plays in the scene where Katherine Johnson is running half a mile away to use the segregated bathroom. "I had to really try to imagine what her struggle must have felt like and express it in 3 minutes and 30 seconds. I'm excited that I could even have the opportunity to musically and melodically illustrate what she was going through," Williams said in press materials. The second song is called "I See a Victory," co-written with Kirk Franklin and performed by gospel singer Kim Burrell.
So far, the film Hidden Figures is nominated for numerous awards, including two Golden Globes — one for Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting Actress, and one for Best Original Score. Spencer is also nominated for a SAG Award for Female Actor in a Supporting Role, and the cast is nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. We'll have to wait until Jan. 24 to find out if the movie is also nominated for any Oscars. Hidden Figuresis currently playing in theaters.