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Hidden Figures: a Story of Space, Race, and the Space Race

By Katie Hansche, '18

The recent box office hit Hidden Figures (2017) illuminates a once virtually unknown story of the female computers involved NASA’s Project Mercury in the 1960s. The movie stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer as the main trifecta. This film offers a glimpse into Jim Crow era Virginia with an upbeat undertone led by African American women making their mark on segregation and the establishment thereof.

Beginning in 1958 and continuing until 1963, NASA’s Project Mercury was initiated in response to Russia’s attempts to put the first man in space. The untold story of the computers, particularly African American women, put the Jim Crow era into perspective. The women who calculated all of the mathematics and physics required to put men in space were the untold facet until Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel Hidden Figures hit the shelves. The story starts with Henson as Katherine Goble, and her friends Mary Jackson (Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), calculating in the colored west wing of Langley Research Station.

Goble was the mathematician whose analytic geometry calculated the launch and landing trajectories for launches up to Alan Shepard's Friendship-7 suborbital launch and including putting the first American man, John H. Glenn, Jr., into Earth’s orbit. While balancing being a single mother with three children, Katherine worked days, nights, and anything in between to secure her position in the program.

Mary Jackson, portrayed by Monáe, was a theoretical physicist for the engineering aspect of Project Mercury with such a good mind that she was encouraged to get her engineering degree despite Virginia’s segreation laws. Also balancing children and a social life, Mary Jackson pushed political and social lines within NASA and the Virginia government, which helped her eventually become NASA’s first female African American Engineer.

Dorothy Vaughn, depicted by Spencer, did the work of a supervisor without the pay or title until she faced obsolescence when the first computer, the International Business Machine (IBM), came to NASA. She made herself and the ladies she supervised fluent in IBM’s coding language when the first computers came about to ensure her position in NASA, while pushing norms and becoming NASA’s first female African American supervisor.

The women in this story bravely faced adversity when there was no mercy for those who stood up to inequality. These ladies not only took down barriers within NASA, but changed how we view the Mercury program and its components. It takes all kinds to complete anything, and this movie sheds light on the not-so-kind racist and sexist characteristics of the 1960s without taking away from the brilliance and empowerment of the story. With fairly static camera action, the cinematography of the film frames personal and climactic scenes with ease.

A delight to watch, Hidden Figures tackles heavy topics without losing the warmth and sense of victory that the story is radiating, and with a soundtrack featuring Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, audiences cannot help but feel proud of these women and the contributions they made to the American Space Race and civil rights history.