'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space A new film tells the stories of three women who made incalculable contributions to the space program: engineer Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson and NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.
NPR logo

'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/505569187/505811933" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space

'Hidden Figures' No More: Meet The Black Women Who Helped Send America To Space

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/505569187/505811933" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And on February 20, 1962, some hundred million people were glued to their televisions as astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN GLENN: Zero-G and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.

GREENE: The team that put him there included thousands of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. OK, what image just came into your head? 1960s square-jawed, crewcut white guys? Well, that's most often who you do see in movies and documentaries about that era at NASA. But a new book and movie called "Hidden Figures" shows the reality, and it's a very different picture, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The new movie, "Hidden Figures," was made with some serious star power - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae. One of the producers is Pharrell Williams, who also did the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNIN'")

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Running from the man, running from the badge. Don't act like you was there when you wasn't.

BLAIR: A brilliant mathematician, who happens to be a black woman, is forced to run in high heels to a building on the other side of Langley Research Center every time she needs to use the bathroom, the one marked colored.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNIN'")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Sometime my mind dives deep when I'm running.

BLAIR: Taraji Henson plays Katherine Johnson who, in real life, is NASA's most famous mathematician. At the time, she was one of the so-called human computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) You think you can find me the Frenet frame for this data using the Gram-Schmidt...

TARAJI P. HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Orthogonalization algorithm? Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.

BLAIR: NASA was just beginning to use electronic computers. Astronaut John Glenn had so much faith in Johnson's calculations, he asked that she double check the IBM.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: And he said, get the girl to do it.

BLAIR: Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of the book, "Hidden Figures."

SHETTERLY: You know, I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer. And if she says they're good, then, you know, I'm good to go, you know, as part of one of my preflight checklists. So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South, at the time, as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: John reports all systems in the spacecraft are go. The flight trajectory still looks good.

BLAIR: Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories for the Apollo moon landing and the early space shuttle program. President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her 33-year career at NASA. For Taraji Henson, playing such a formidable figure has been her hardest role yet.

HENSON: Math and science scares me. It makes my heart palpitate.

BLAIR: Sitting in her trailer in Atlanta on the set of "Hidden Figures" last spring, Henson said she was surprised she'd never heard of Katherine Johnson before reading Shetterly's book.

HENSON: I mean, you know, like, scientists, mathematicians know her, but the world needs to know her. And so I felt a little angry. Like, why hasn't this story been told?

BLAIR: Turns out there were many women, black and white, working as human computers at Langley. Getting ahead was something else altogether. Math and engineering were male dominated fields - still are. If you were a female and black, it was even tougher. Janelle Monae plays another of the hidden figures.

JANELLE MONAE: You know, these women were so brilliant because if they were off by one number, it could have caused a failure or caused a death in one of the astronauts in the rockets.

BLAIR: Monae plays Mary Jackson. In the 1950s, her extraordinary math talents were spotted by a leading NASA engineer. He offered her a promotion if she completed a few more classes. But the classes were only taught at Hampton, Va.'s, all-white high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

MONAE: (As Mary Jackson) Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line - every time.

BLAIR: So Jackson petitioned the city of Hampton.

MONAE: Mary Jackson was very determined. She was not going to sit by and allow anyone to discriminate against her because she was a woman or she was African-American.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABLE")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, we can - yours and mine.

BLAIR: The city granted Jackson a pass to attend the classes. In 1958, she became NASA's first African-American female engineer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABLE")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Yes, we can. I feel it like lightning in the forest. Yes, we can.

BLAIR: Twenty-First Century Fox is drumming up as much attention as possible for "Hidden Figures," especially with audiences most affected by the subject matter, with screenings for engineering organizations, the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian's new African-American Museum of History and Culture.

And at 98 years old, legendary NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is giving interviews. She seems bemused by all of the fuss surrounding the movie. On her role in John Glenn's historic mission, she says she was just doing her job.

KATHERINE JOHNSON: It was just an assignment. I'm accustomed to being asked something. And I, of course, answered to the best of my ability and hoped that's the answer they were looking for.

BLAIR: But for black women working at Langley Research Center today, Johnson and the other hidden figures are heroes. And they're elated a Hollywood studio is telling their stories.

JULIE WILLIAMS-BYRD: Phenomenal (laughter). I loved it.

BLAIR: Engineer Julie Williams-Byrd attended a special screening for NASA employees in Hampton, Va. She says she feels connected to these women, especially engineer Mary Jackson.

WILLIAMS-BYRD: I feel Mary in my spirit (laughter). She went after it. She didn't let anything stop her, not even her husband. She had a dream. She had a vision. She had a goal. And that's one thing that we need to tell our young people. You know, don't let anything stop you. If you got a vision, go for it. You can do it.

BLAIR: Astronaut Yvonne Cagle is African-American. She says the movie was an emotional experience.

YVONNE CAGLE: It just brings everything full circle to me. It's my story. It's your story. It's our story. It's a conversation that talks about - even with limited thinking, dreaming is limitless. And if you prepare and you persevere, anything is possible.

BLAIR: Watching the stories of these African-American women, mathematicians and engineers, Cagle says, made her feel lifted up and off the planet.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JALAPENO")

JANELLE MONAE AND PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) My heart's on fuego.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.