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Unstoppable Forces: The Women of Hidden Figures

Meet unstoppable forces: the women of Hidden Figures. #unstoppableforcesA few weeks ago, my husband and I finally saw Hidden Figures.

If you haven’t seen it—or heard of it—I suggest you check out the trailer here.

Hidden Figures is the story of four African-American female mathematicians working for NASA during the years Alan Shephard and John Glenn made their historic flights. In particular, Katherine Johnson, the main focus of the film, was instrumental in calculating numerous equations for John Glenn’s orbital mission.

How instrumental? According to Katherine Johnson, at one point, John Glenn told engineers to “get the girl.” He didn’t want to rely on computers (which at that point in time were a lot less reliable than they are today) to get him back to Earth safely. He wanted Ms. Johnson to do the calculations by hand.

In case you hated history (or are really young), John Glenn’s space flight was a success, despite his heat shield loosening, which required NASA engineers and mathematicians, including Ms. Johnson, to scramble to verify whether he’d still make his planned orbital trajectory and reenter Earth’s atmosphere safely.

When he splashed down successfully, he carried with him not only a tremendous achievement for NASA, but one for unstoppable forces everywhere.

Now, movies are fictional—even those based on true stories. Those stories get adapted and twisted and condensed and elongated to keep the audiences engaged. In interviews, Katherine Johnson has indicated that she was just “doing her job.” She doesn’t seem to see herself as a hero or an inspiration, though to many, she is just that.

Obviously (I hope), I wasn’t there when Johnson and her colleagues fought against segregation at NASA. Perhaps the film adaptation has very little to do with reality. I’m not sure that it matters, though, in the end. What does is the pivotal role Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson played in getting United States astronauts into space. Just “doing her job”? Sure. But that job launched a man outside of Earth’s atmosphere and brought him back safely. 

These women were unstoppable forces. They worked at NASA in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when segregation was the norm and black women (and men) were always seen as “less than.”

These women fought every day against a system that was determined to keep them in their place—in a segregated room, in a segregated building, without even a title that made them feel human. They were called “computers.”

Yet, when called upon, they did their best work. When they were ignored, they fought. When they were silenced, they screamed.

These women are heroes. They’re unstoppable forces.

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