|photo credit: IMDB|
Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures? Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen the trailers on TV about three black women whose contributions were vital to the space program. Anyone who has read my posts here and on my own blog knows that I’m crazy about space travel. When Russia put Sputnik into orbit around Earth, the adults were convinced they were spying on the U.S., that they could drop a bomb from space and obliterate our country. In school, we hid under our desks and covered our heads in preparation for a nuclear bomb. Yeah, that would save us. But, I digress.
The local book group I belong to read the book Hidden Figures, which seemed more like a textbook. But that didn't stop the producers from making a movie about three amazing black women, representative of hundreds black and white. Women who responded to the government’s call for mathematicians and physicists during World War II. Because of that need, President Roosevelt desegregated the defense industry thereby paving the way for black women to earn three times as much as they made teaching. Who wouldn’t jump on that? But, just because the president ordered desegregation it didn't erase years of treating black women as second/third class citizens. I could get on my soapbox about treating women, in general, as second class. Again, I digress.
The contributions of women to the space program is immeasurable. They were called computers. That was their job title. They performed all the scientific equations, by hand, that enabled NASA to propel a man into space and bring him home again. Even when what we know as “real” computers (IBMs) were brought in, the women learned to use them. But people back then didn’t trust machines. In both the book and the movie, we learn that John Glenn refused to launch until Katherine Johnson confirmed the machine’s computations, computations she performed by hand.
Even though I’ve followed the space program since the original seven astronauts, watched the liftoffs of Alan Shepard and John Glenn on television, listened to news anchors describe what was going to happen and brought in scientists with diagrams, etc. I never knew about the contributions of the women who worked behind the scenes. Without them, we would’ve been playing catch up to the Russians for years.
Remember, that was during the Cold War. Nationalism in the U.S. was so strong in the 1950s and 1960s we had to be better than the Russians. If they put a rocket into space, why didn’t we have one? Their man got into space before ours. Talk about humiliation. President Kennedy challenged us even more—that before the end of the decade (1960s) we would put a man on the moon.
Once we did that, we didn’t have a national challenge. Even though NASA continued with the shuttle and the space station, Americans couldn’t see that those were preparations for exploring more of our solar system. Next stop Mars. Did we not listen or didn’t NASA explain their goals well enough? Maybe we didn’t care anymore. Budgets have been cut. Isn't it ironic that we send our astronauts to the former Soviet Union to be launched? (Side note: watch Interstellar to see what happens when all funding for the space program is cut.)
Hidden Figures was truly an inspirational movie. I saw the movie on DVD and the extras, especially “behind the scenes”, were even better. As I watched, I remembered the pride in our country that I felt in those days. But more than that, I felt pride that women contributed so much and inspired others to go into the space program. Along with that pride, I felt anger that their contributions have been ignored for far too long.