CNN is reporting that four of the African American women whose math and science skills were crucial in helping NASA send human beings into space in the 1960s, inspiring the book and movie “Hidden Figures,” have been awarded Congressional gold medals, President Donald Trump signed into law the measure that awarded the women one of America’s highest civilian honors.
“Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, as well as mathematician Katherine Johnson and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. Vaughan and Jackson, who passed away, were both awarded posthumously. A fifth gold medal was granted in honor of all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race.”
The story of the women, human “computers,” who wrote the equations that led to the first Americans to fly in space and eventually land on the moon was first dramatized in the movie “Hidden Figures,” based on the best-selling book by the same name. The story neatly juxtapositions how the space race and the civil rights movement coincided and affected one another in unexpected ways.
The story started when the United States entered World War II. With every available man being sent to the theaters of combat, women, even women of color, found new opportunities in supporting the war effort in the workplace.
While “Rosie the Riveter” built tanks and aircraft, her more educated sisters helped in the design of aircraft as math whizzes, writing the equations that assisted the engineers to design the weapons of war needed to defeat the Axis powers. The phenomenon continued during the space race with the Soviet Union that followed.
Before the world war and the space race, African American women who were good in science and math could hope, at best, to become teachers in segregated schools. The war and the space race brought brand new opportunities for women of color to show what they could do, winning the respect of their white fellow workers and supervisors.
The movie picks up the story at the beginning of the space race and has some scenes that were made up to serve the overall theme.
The first happens at the beginning of the film when three of the women, late to work and exceeding the speed limit, are pulled over by a white police officer. Most African Americans know the terror of being caught “driving while black.”
However, when finding out that the women he had pulled over were working for NASA, the cop escorts them to work., Whatever his prejudices were, the police officer knew that these women were helping America to beat the godless Soviets to the moon.
The other incident involves a segregated bathroom. One of the women is constantly late to appointments because she has to run across the campus of NASA Langley to use the bathroom designated for black people. When he white supervisor, played by Kevin Costner hears about it, he takes a crowbar and tears down the sign designating the bathroom for “colored” to the cheers of the NASA employees.
The truth of that story, as related in the book, is a little less dramatic. The designation of “white” and “colored” bathrooms was pretty much ignored, with the signs disappearing in the night, never to be seen again.
The third scene has the air of truth, involving as it does one of the women who seek to train the human computers under her charge to use the electronic computers that were then just being installed. Finding out that the books she needs are in the “white” section of the public library (yes, even libraries were segregated in the Jim Crow south) the woman steals the books, or as she puts it, borrowing them without permission.
In later years some unscrupulous politicians and civil rights leaders claimed that the race to the moon was being conducted at the expense of African Americans. A group of people appeared to protest the launch of Apollo 11. These claims led to the curtailment of the Apollo program,
However, it should be noted, that the Hidden Figures women were empowered by the early space program. It can be said, without fear of contradiction, that they are now receiving some long-overdue recognition. Their story has illuminated the history of the space program in ways that even many who were alive to witness it were not aware of at the time.