“What’s the point of a space mission that can’t get anyone to space?” asked the head of NASA’s Space Task Force, Al Harrison, in the 2016 biographical drama Hidden Figures. Well, with the dedicated work of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the heroines of the film, NASA’s space program ~literally~ took off. Actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play the incredible mathematicians who helped pioneer modern space technology. The film follows the experiences of these three Black women and their upward battle fighting against racist and patriarchal stereotypes inside and outside their work at NASA. Although these were all talented women, they were often eclipsed by their white male colleagues. In fact, their valuable contributions to the 1960’s ‘Space Race’ have, for a long time, been a hidden gem in American history.
The film centers around the intense chaos surrounding NASA’s challenge to send astronaut John Glenn to space. The film was interesting but, while watching, I experienced some generational shock. It wasn’t just the idea of human computers (which seems foreign to most of us), but viewing the harsh and explicit manifestations of racism and segregation was surreal. Despite their talent and drive, Ms. Vaughan, Ms. Jackson, and Mrs. Johnson were all overlooked and ostracized by their white colleagues.
The film ends with an endearing moment where Al Harrison, takes down the “Whites Only” sign from the women’s bathroom and there is a moment of reverie and relief between the Black and Brown NASA staff and their white colleagues. Although the movie ends by tying a reassuring bow around the racial discrimination displayed throughout, discrimination against Black and Brown people in the workforce still exists. Black employees face harassment, microaggressions, promotion restrictions, and much more — not too unlike that in the film. Women of color, in particular, are vulnerable to racial violence in the workplace and also make only 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
Katherine Goble Johnson, in particular, was crucial to the success of NASA’s mission. Her calculations and expertise were absolutely necessary to make the launch possible. “It’s our tradition to name each Cygnuys after an individual who’s played a pivotal role in human spaceflight, and Mrs. Johnson was selected for her hand-written calculations that helped launch the first Americans into space, as well as her accomplishments in breaking glass ceiling after glass ceiling as a Black woman,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager at Northtop Grumman, after naming the NG-15 Cynus spacecraft the S.S. Katherine Johnson in 2021. Despite her tremendous role in the ‘Space Race,’ I only remember learning about John Glenn in school, not Katherine Johnson and her contributions to science and this historic American accomplishment.
Watch Hidden Figures on Disney Plus, Hulu, or the Dickinson Library Circulation Desk to take in the experiences of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson: three brilliant Black women who supported (and in the case of Katherine Goble Johnson – led) America’s historic accomplishment in space.
Written by Lizzy Parry ‘21, WGRC student worker
Take the Quiz!: Which Hidden Figures Character Are You?
 Natalie. “Cardi B Slams The WAP Haters: ‘It’s What People Wanna Hear.’” KIIS 1065 Sydney, KIIS 1065 Sydney, 24 Aug. 2020, www.kiis1065.com.au/entertainment/cardi-b-slams-the-wap-haters-its-what-people-wanna-hear/.
 Al Harrison – head of NASA’s Space Task Force in the film Hidden Figures
 Rhinehart, Charlene. “Spacecraft Named in Honor of Black Woman ‘Hidden Figures’ Mathematician.” Black Enterprise, Black Enterprise, 21 Feb. 2021, www.blackenterprise.com/spacecraft-named-in-honor-of-black-woman-hidden-figures-mathematician/.
 Thompson, Amy. “Northrop Grumman Antares Rocket Launches Cygnus Cargo Ship to Space Station for NASA.” Space.com, Space, 20 Feb. 2021, www.space.com/northrop-grummman-launches-cygnus-ng15-cargo-ship.