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Black History Month heroes:NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’


Released on Jan. 6, the movie “Hidden Figures” is in the running for the Oscar in several categories, including the coveted Picture of the Year, at the 2017 Academy Awards.

The film is based on a real-life event, the launching of America into the space race and the “hidden figures,” a team of African American female mathematicians, whose work as “human computers” ensured that program’s success.

Three of the women whose lives are depicted in the film are Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. Of the three, only Johnson is still alive today.

According to the biography about Katherine Johnson, she was selected for the program in 1953. In 1961, she was directly involved in computations regarding trajectory for Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 mission.

Johnson, who is now 98 years old, also became the first African American woman to have her name listed as co-authoring a NASA report, and of course, she worked with John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 orbit, which is featured in the film “Hidden Figures.”

According to an article on, the first black women “computers,” as they were called, almost were not accepted at NASA due to segregation laws existent at that time, but then President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that allowed desegregation in occupations related to government work.

Regrettably, the work place was not always congenial. The women were required to use segregated bathrooms and to eat at “colored only” dining stations.

Some of the women protested this treatment in small ways: one woman, Miriam Mann, kept removing the “colored” sign at their dining table.

The film “Hidden Figures,” which is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” is still in movie theaters.

Those interested in learning more about the women who were involved in the NASA project can also view a display at the Greenville-Butler County Public Library. The display includes details and pictures about Johnson, Vaugh and Jackson.





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