33: Hidden Figures

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Space has always been a fascinating topic that has thrilled moviegoers for generations. Braving the far reaches of our galaxy is something only a few have been able to do, so when you can put together a true story along with space, you get something really special.

But have you ever taken a moment to think about how people have managed to make it into outer space? For example, the real events behind Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s epic space adventure Apollo 13, which we covered on the podcast earlier, took place in April of 1970.

That same month was when Intel began work on what would become the very first microprocessor—or CPU—the Intel 4004. This impressive piece of technology boasted a speed of 740 kilohertz (KHz). By comparison, the iPhone 7’s CPU operates at 2.45 gigahertz (GHz).

Without getting too technical, one hertz equates to one cycle per second, so that’d mean the Intel 4004 operated at 740,000 cycles per second while the iPhone 7 is at 2.45 billion.

Oh, and there are four cores built into the iPhone’s CPU, and additional processors on the GPU, or graphics processing unit, that they didn’t even have back then.

Needless to say, the technology you have in your cell phone now is more than what they had on Apollo 13. While NASA didn’t have the same technology then, that just makes the minds behind sending someone into space that much more impressive.

We’ve all heard the story of the astronauts like Jim Lovell on Apollo 13 who went into space. This Friday, there’s a new movie coming out that tells a story from behind the scenes that you’ve probably never heard. It’s a story of three women in particular whose brilliant minds were part of the reason for NASA’s successful space missions.

Before you go see the movie, let’s take a moment to learn about the women whose incredible story is the basis of the film. Then you’ll know the true story when you go to compare history with what you see in Hidden Figures.

The true story behind Hidden Figures

The movie Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who worked at NASA in the late 1960s. They are Dorothy Vaughan, who’s played by Octavia Spencer in the film, Katherine Johnson, who’s portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film, and last but certainly not least, Mary Jackson as played by the talented singer and actress Janelle Monáe.

Let’s start by learning more about the team leader of the group, Dorothy Vaughan.

Dorothy was born as Dorothy Johnson on September 20th, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. After her family moved northeast to Virginia, Dorothy decided to attend college at a private university called Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. If you’ve never heard of Wilberforce, don’t worry. It’s a tiny town with less than 2,000 people in it.

If you’re familiar with Ohio’s geography, Wilberforce is just east of Dayton. If you’re not familiar with Ohio, it’s sandwiched between Columbus and Cincinnati, or about 60 miles east of the Ohio/Indiana border.

After graduating from Wilberforce University with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1929, Dorothy moved closer to her parents and worked as a math teacher at a high school in Farmville, Virginia for a short time.

No, that’s not the Facebook game. There’s actually a place called Farmville in Virginia. It’s bigger than Wilberforce, but not by much. As of the 2010 census, there’s only about 8,000 people there. I wonder if they all play FarmVille on Facebook.

Anyway, Dorothy married Howard Vaughan in 1932. Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of documentation to show what the newlyweds did, but for the next 11 years or so it’s probably a pretty safe bet they were simply living life.

What we do know is in 1943, Dorothy changed jobs when she was hired at NACA. That’s the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was dissolved and merged into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in 1958.

And now, let’s take a step back from Dorothy’s story because there’s two other women featured in Hidden Figures.

The real Mary Jackson, who’s played by Janelle Monáe in the film, grew up in a much different way than Dorothy. Compared to the small town Dorothy grew up in, Mary was born in a massive down of over 100,000 people named Hampton, Virginia, on the 9th of April in 1921.

Hampton is right on the coast, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it’s only about 45 miles from Jamestown, which was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, and the subject of one of our previous episodes about John Smith and Pocahontas.

Mary’s family didn’t move across the country like Dorothy’s did, but instead stayed in Virginia throughout her entire childhood. As she grew up, Mary excelled in school, graduating from the George P. Phenix Training School, a high school located in Hampton, with the highest honors possible.

Her love of school continued through college as she attended the local Hampton Institute. In 1942, she graduated from the Hampton Institute with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Physical Science.

It wasn’t until after she graduated from college that she moved away, working as a school teacher in Maryland for a few months. That job was short-lived, as Mary’s career took a turn that many people’s did after the United States got involved in World War II.

In 1943, just two years after the United Service Organization was founded, Mary moved back to Virginia to take a job at the USO. She worked there for eight years as a bookkeeper and secretary. Then, in 1951, she joined NACA as a Computer, which was the official title for women working as research mathematicians working at NACA.

And just like we did with Dorothy, let’s leave Mary’s story here for a moment so we can learn about the third woman, and the woman that is the main character in the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson.

Katherine was born as Katherine Coleman on August 26th, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. If you listened to the A Beautiful Mind episode about John Forbes Nash, Jr., you’ll know that he was born in 1928 in Bluefield, West Virginia. Bluefield is about 75 miles west of White Sulphur Springs, both of which are on the southern side of West Virginia.

Pretty crazy to think that two of the brightest minds in mathematics in the 20th century were born exactly ten years apart and less than 100 miles from each other.

Growing up in West Virginia in the early 1900s, Katherine’s life was affected by prejudice rather early in her life. At the time, the county school system she was a part of didn’t have a high school for black students.

So her education would’ve ended in the eighth grade had it not been for her parents’ bending over backwards to provide an education for Katherine and her three siblings. They did so by way of splitting their time between White Sulphur Springs on the southeastern side of West Virginia and a small town called Institute, in the northwest side of West Virginia.

That’s about 150 miles by way of highways and by today’s standards would take about three hours of driving each way. But this was in the 1920s. Most of the highways we know of now in the United States didn’t exist until President Eisenhower championed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Before the highway system, most of the roads in the United States were local roads. Many of the roads that connected towns were in a constant state of disrepair, making travel tedious, time consuming and often dangerous. Especially in many of the hilly and mountainous areas in West Virginia where small roads meant you could easily slide around or be subject to other poor conditions.

We can only guess what the roads were like between White Sulphur Springs and Institute at the time, but it’s fairly safe to say it had to have taken a lot longer than three hours to travel there in the 1920s.

So that’s likely why the Coleman family stayed in Institute for most of the school year and went back to White Sulphur Springs in the summers. But still, it shows how important education was to Katherine’s parents, Joshua and Joylette Coleman for their children.

And Katherine responded well to the continued education when she started high school at the age of ten. Yes, you read that right. Ten years old.

Katherine graduated from high school at the age of 14 and the following year, at just 15 years of age, she attended West Virginia State College. She was a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as she could as she took every single math course that West Virginia State offered.

It was while she attended college here that one of her professors mentioned that she’d make a great research mathematician. That professor was none other than Dr. William Claytor, who was only the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics and the very first to publish mathematics research.

During her time at West Virginia College, Dr. Claytor did more than suggest Katherine become a research mathematician. He helped her prepare for that as a career path.

Katherine graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1937, which means she was in the top 1% that year, with degrees in math and French at the age of 18. Although she couldn’t have known it at the time, Katherine’s path was similar to the paths as a teacher that Dorothy and Mary took after graduation.

In Katherine’s case, she taught not only math, but also music and French at a small school in Marion, Virginia, which is about 150 miles southwest of White Sulphur Springs. Two years later, in 1939, Katherine married a man by the name of James Goble. She left her position as a teacher to start a family.

James and Katherine Goble enjoyed many years with their growing family. Together, the couple would end up having three children: Constance, Joylette and Katherine.

In 1952, Katherine’s life took a dramatic turn when James became ill. With James unable to work, Katherine went back to teaching. This time as a substitute teacher for the schools in the town of Newport News, Virginia.

It was shortly after this happened that one of her relatives mentioned a job opening at NACA that was specifically for African American women to work as computers. Katherine applied, but was rejected due to the spots being filled up by the time she got her application in.

The following year, in 1953, a spot opened up and Katherine was offered the job. She accepted and joined NACA.

Sadly, three years after Katherine started working at NACA, her husband, James Goble, passed away from a brain tumor. Then three years after that, in 1959, Katherine married Lt. Colonel James Johnson and became Katherine Johnson.

So that catches up to the point where all three women in Hidden Figures are working at NACA. Just to recap, Dorothy Vaughan joined NACA in 1943, Mary joined in 1951, and Katherine joined in 1953.

Although the film Hidden Figures focuses on these three women, as we see in the movie it’s not like they were the only women working there. In truth, there were hundreds of women who worked as human computers at NACA. While not all of the human computers were African American women, this was the early 1950s we’re talking about. So, unfortunately, there was segregation. The African American women who worked as human computers at the Langley Research Center were assigned to the West Area. This was a collection of buildings in, well, the west side of the Langley Research Center’s campus in Hampton, Virginia.

This group of women were known as the West Area Computing Unit, or just West Area Computers. It was a group that was founded just after the start of World War II in 1943 and continued on until NACA became NASA in 1958.

You’ll notice that Dorothy’s start date at NACA is the same year that the West Area Computers were founded. That’s not a coincidence. Dorothy was one of the first in the group. For six years, the West Area Computers were subject to segregation and were supervised by white managers.

The first step towards change occurred in 1949 when Dorothy was named the acting head of the West Area Computers. Considering the highly technical work that was going on at the research center, that’d be quite an achievement for anyone today. In 1940s America that was still extremely racist, that’s an extraordinary achievement. In typical government fashion, though, it wasn’t until two more years when Dorothy was officially given the title of Head Computer.

Unfortunately, though, it’s not like Dorothy’s appointment as section head magically made the racism go away. The West Area Computers were still a segregated unit. But still, if anything that only adds to the incredible nature of Dorothy’s achievement.

It was around this time, in 1951, that Mary joined NACA, followed by Katherine just a few years later. Both Mary and Katherine were assigned to Dorothy’s group at the West Area of the Langley Research Center. This is really where the careers of these three amazing women overlapped.

After World War II ended, and the Cold War began to heat up, the space race began. Most historians point to an American announcement on July 29th, 1955 as the unofficial start of the race. The announcement was that the United States would launch a satellite, unmanned, into space.

Four days later the Soviet Union announced their own intentions to launch a satellite into space. So, I guess, the race technically would’ve started when the Soviet Union made that second announcement on August 2nd, 1955.

For years, it went back and forth as each country tried to outdo the other.

On October 1st, 1958, the NACA was dissolved and everyone transferred to a new agency: NASA. Six days later, NASA officially started work on their first manned spaceflight program. It’d later be renamed Project Mercury.

There were a lot of changes in the air as NACA dissolved and NASA became a new agency. One of those was a change for the better, as segregation was abolished. The West Area Computers were officially no more.

Dorothy did what many of the women of the former West Area Computers did and merged into a new division called the Analytics and Computation Division (ACD). This new division wasn’t segregated, and it also was pushing the boundaries of work in the 1950s as it saw both men and women of all races working side by side.

As a part of one of the most vital aspects at the center of the space race, the men and women at the Langley Research Center were at the heart of almost everything NASA did in its early years.

It was around this time, in 1957, actually, that IBM first launched a computer programming language named Fortran. This language, whose name comes from the term “Formula Translation”, was specifically designed to work on super computers. And by computers here, I mean actual electronic computers, and not people.

As you might imagine, NASA was at the forefront of using super computers for their advancement in the space race. And it was Dorothy Vaughan who dedicated the rest of her career to becoming a specialist in electronic computing, and more specifically with the Fortran programming language.

Dorothy’s amazing career included many high points, perhaps one of the most notable of these being her work on Project Scout. Scout is an acronym which stands for Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system, and was essentially a small rocket that the Langley Research team built in 1960. According to the official NASA website:

“Although not widely known, Scout developed into one of the finest pieces of technology in the history of space exploration, and became a very reliable, consistent, performing workhorse.”

In 1971, Dorothy retired from NASA after 28 years.

Mary Jackson’s career path was a bit different than Dorothy’s. After her time in the West Area Computers, she moved to the Compressibility Research Division in 1953. At this point, it was still NACA since NASA didn’t exist.

The Compressibility Research Division was the part of NACA that had developed the X-1 just a few years before. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’d know the X-1 when you saw it. It’s a distinctly orange rocket aircraft that reached popularity in 1947 when test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to reach supersonic speeds.

During Mary’s time at the Compressibility Research Division, she worked hard to get promoted despite the combined racism and sexism of the time. A key part of this was training that the government required to change titles from “mathematician” to “engineer”. An engineer at the time had a better chance of promotion while a mathematician was a pretty static position.

As she learned what it’d take to change titles, Mary shared her knowledge with other women and in so doing helped advance the careers of many other women as well. After about five years, Mary became one of the first women to get promoted when she became an aerospace engineer.

Mary Jackson retired in 1984 after 34 years at NASA. During that time, she reached the highest level of engineer that was possible without becoming a supervisor.

While both Dorothy and Mary had extraordinary careers, if there’s a reason why the lead character in the film Hidden Figures is Katherine Johnson it’s probably because Katherine’s career was even more extraordinary yet—if such a thing is possible.

Katherine joined Dorothy and in the West Area Computers when she joined NACA in 1953, just before Mary moved on from the same department. Katherine worked there until 1958 when NACA became NASA.

Unlike Dorothy, Katherine didn’t stay with many of the human computers in the new Analytics and Computation Division. Instead, she was transferred to part of Langley’s Flight Research Division called the Guidance and Control Division. This in and of itself was a bit unique since this division, at the time, was an all-male division.

Her brilliance shone bright, and she became an important piece of the puzzle that calculated the math required for some of NASA’s biggest achievements. The first of these major achievements came 23 days after the Soviet Union made Yuri Gagarin the first human in space.

On May 5th, 1961 when Katherine was a part of the team on Project Mercury that solved the trajectory for the second human, and the first American, to reach space. I’m speaking, of course, about the Mercury Spacecraft 7, also known as Freedom 7, which carried astronaut Alan Shepherd into space.

But this wasn’t the only amazing feat in Katherine’s career at NASA. The following year, her calculations were vital to the success of John Glenn becoming the first human to orbit the earth in 1962.

Although perhaps most notably was Katherine’s work on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission that saw Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.

In 1986, Katherine Johnson retired from NASA after 33 years of service. During her career, she co-authored 26 scientific papers that helped pioneer our understanding of science and technology. She also earned numerous awards including the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards.

Together with Dorothy, Mary and many of the other African American women in the West Area Computers, Katherine served as an inspiration for countless people, most notably to the African American women seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

On November 24th, 2015, Katherine Johnson was at the White House when President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That’s the highest possible honor for a civilian in the United States.

As of this writing, and of the three women we’ve learned about, Katherine is the only one who is still with us. Dorothy passed away on November 10th, 2008. Mary on February 11th, 2005.

Katherine is still married to Lieutenant Colonel James Johnson, has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Katherine and James currently reside in Hampton, Virginia.


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