To put it simply, Hidden Figures is a feel-good movie set in the 1960s. It tackles prejudice against black women, the fear of computers taking over human jobs, and the absolute state of panic of the United States (US) due to the fact that the Russians might have better technology than them.
This movie sheds light on the hidden figures behind NASA’s achievements in the space race. These hidden figures were the three intelligent black women who solved the mathematics and fixed the IBM Computers, which helped the US send their first man into orbit.
Mary Jackson is portrayed as an attractive and unapologetic lady with a dash of sass – whether this characterisation of her is an accurate portrayal is unknown. She worked as a ‘human computer’ at the West Area Computing session for two years, before being offered work alongside Kazimierz Czarknecki in the 4-ft-by-4-ft Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Seeing the potential in her to be a NASA engineer, Czarknecki asked Mary to enter a training program at the University of Virginia. This would promote her from a mathematician to an engineer.
However, there was one big problem. The school that ran the course was an all-white school, meaning she needed to gain legal permission from the Court to enroll. One of my favourite dialogues in the movie between the two characters is when Czarknecki asked Mary, “If you were a white man would you have wished to be an engineer”, to which Mary replied, “If I were a white man, I wouldn’t wish to be an engineer, I already would be one”.
Katherine Johnson was a maths prodigy. She entered high school at the age of thirteen and was handpicked by the President of West Virginia State to be one of the first black people to attend the University of West Virginia. She played an important role in working the mathematics of sending the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space, and the trajectory analysis of Alan Shepard’s Friendship 7 mission.
As the IBM computers were used to calculate complex orbital equations that would control the trajectory of Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule, the astronaut felt wary of putting his life in the hands of an electronic device, which was prone to hiccups and errors. So, moments before the lift-off he demanded engineers to “get the girl [Katherine]” to run through the same equations plugged into the computer, but by hand, using her desktop calculator.
“If she says it’s good then I’m ready to go”–Hidden Figures
With that, the mission was a success, marking a turning point in the space race between America and the Soviet Union.
Dorothy Vaughen was a leadership icon in this film. She played an unofficial supervisor role in the West Computers. Despite her leadership in West Computers, she was never promoted nor acknowledged as one.
As the story progresses, the IBM computers become the unofficial villains of the movie. The computers were replacing the whole unit of black mathematicians at the West Computers, who did calculations for any future space missions. In the film, Dorothy is seen borrowing a book from the library about the language and the workings of an IBM computer. She understood it so well that she even fixed a mistake the computer engineers couldn’t figure out when they assembled it. Because of this, she was invited to the new Analysis and Computational Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing.
“I will accept the offer, but only if you allow my girls to work with me”–Hidden Figures
She then became an expert of FORTRAN, a programming language suited for numeric and scientific computing. In reality, NASA had a swarm of black female programmers working behind the scenes to ensure every mission runs smoothly.
And these are the hidden figures of the scientific breakthroughs that we look back on today.
By Roshween Riar