Hidden Figures: A Look At The Real Women Behind The Movie

It’s Oscar movie release season (for some, the best time of the year) and among quite a few great titles that have popped up, the movie “Hidden Figures” is set for UK release on the 17th of February. If you haven’t seen a trailer for it, the movie is about three African-American women, Mary Winston-Jackson, Katherine G. Johnson, and Dorothy Johnson Vaughan that worked as “human computers” in the segregation area that plagued the US. The movie follows their careers while at NASA and is based on the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterley. While it’s estimated that hundreds if not thousands of African-American women had an impact on shaping NASA, an impact which largely remained unknown even within NASA itself, we’ll have a look at the legacies that the three protagonists left in real life.

Mary Winston-Jackson


Mary Winston-Jackson was a Mathematician that worked at NASA during the Space Age as part of a group of African American women known as “human computers”.

Born in 1921 she lived most of her adult life in the midst of segregation. She distinguished herself through her academic work and after finishing her studies she worked a series of jobs. However, due to her skills in mathematics and engineering she found work with NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which later became NASA) in 1951. For the first two years she worked as a research mathematician but in 1951 she was transferred to the Compressibility Research Division.

Working during segregation was tough for Mary who found it hard to deal with being treated as a lesser human being. At work she faced having to use “colored” toilets and having to eat at her desk as opposed to the cafeteria. Ready to leave her job, after a chance meeting with a supervisor she changed her mind. Offering her a position in his own department, Mary accepted and went on to be promoted to aeronautical engineer. She went on to work with wind tunnels and analysed data on aircraft flight experiments.

In 1978, Mary chose to take a change in direction and continued working at NASA as a human resources administrator. Up until her retirement in 1985 she worked to help other women and minorities progress their careers, being a true believer in study and extra courses as a chance for them to stand out and get promoted.

Mary Winston-Jackson passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.

Katherine G. Johnson


Born Katherine Coleman in 1918, she was a highly gifted child. Completing eighth grade by age 10 she went on to graduate from college at the age of 18, even with the limited opportunities that were the norm for African-American education at the time.

From 1930 to 1951 she was a teacher of Maths and French, but found out that NACA was accepting applications from African-American women for “human computer” roles and she applied. While working as a computer she took her supervisors by surprise, not only due to her incredible skills in mathematics, but also because she was highly inquisitive, always wanting to know “why”. After only two weeks in the computer wing she was transferred to Langley’s flight research division. As was her nature, she managed to talk her way into attending briefing meetings which was unheard of for a woman at the time, let alone an African-American one.

In 1958, NACA changed its name to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and she was one of the people that were to be responsible for finding out how to send a human into space and get him back safely. Due to her knack and mathematical vision, determining Alan Shephard’s journey to space and back fell on her shoulders. Instead of calculating re-entry point from the time of launch, she calculated backwards from where they wanted him to land. After the 1961 journey to space, the next milestone was sending a man into orbit around the Earth. The calculations were far more complex and by that time electronic computers had been introduced at NASA. However, before John Glenn’s successful orbit in 1961 she was summoned to double-check the maths and results. Without her input, the job wasn’t considered complete.

Computers grew increasingly important in the years to come, however she remained a valued employee due to her skill and accuracy. She did the calculations for the Apollo 11 moon landing and then the following year, contributed to contingency procedures for the Apollo 13 mission when it malfunctioned in space.

Katherine worked for NASA on the space shuttle program until her retirement in 1983 and in the years since has been awarded numerous awards and honors. These include the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to her by Barack Obama. In 2006, NASA unveiled the new $30 million Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at Langley.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan


Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1910, Dorothy was a gifted student that graduated in 1925 with a Bachelor of Science degree. After graduation she split her time between being a mathematics teacher and a mother. She was employed by NACA in 1943 as a mathematician on a temporary basis. Even after Franklin D Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 that made it illegal for people to be discriminated against in the defense industry, she among with all the other African-American employees had to work in separate areas, and was forced to work in the “West Area Computing” unit.

She was in charge of calculating mathematical computations for engineers conducting aeronautical experiments in wind tunnels on the variables effecting drag and lift of aircraft. She was promoted and became the first black supervisor at NACA in 1949 and acted as an advocate for female employees who deserved to be promoted regardless of skin color.

She led the West Area Computing program for over 10 years and then in 1958 joined the new Analysis and Computation Division becoming an expert in FORTRAN programming. This move came after NACA transitioned into NASA and they abolished segregation in the work environment. While a FORTRAN programmer she worked on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program. This was one of the most reliable and successful launch vehicles and was used for launching into orbit a 385-pound satellite.

Before her retirement in 1971 she worked in her last few years at NASA with Katherine G. Johnson and Mary Jackson on launching John Glenn into orbit.

Dorothy Vaughan passed away in 2008 at the age of 98.

Have you seend Hidden Figures? What did you think of it- let us know in the comments!

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