News & Media

Hidden Figures – “These women make such exceptional role models”

This month’s blog is by Chance Holden, aged 21 from London. She studied Maths, Further Maths and Physics A Levels, followed by Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds.

Chance is now working as an Insight Analyst at Your Life and recently went to see the film Hidden Figures – here’s what she had to say about it…

chance

“Hidden Figures is a Hollywood film based on the extraordinary true experiences of a team of African American women working at NASA in the 1960’s. It was nominated for three Oscars, two Golden Globes and three Critics Choice Awards. I went to see the film and was absolutely amazed. These women make exceptional role models for young women such as myself because they fought extreme prejudices and still managed to accomplish the remarkable. They were not put off striving for brilliance because they were the only woman working in a particular area. There were less than 20% girls on my Mechanical Engineering course at university. I hope that the telling of these incredible women’s stories will encourage more young women to study STEM subjects and raise this number in future years.

The women featured in the Hidden Figures film were working as mathematicians for NASA at a time when segregation was rife in America. Black people had to use separate bathrooms and water taps, sit at the back of buses, and eat and work in separate buildings. It is unimaginable the discrimination that people were faced with at this time and yet Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (the protagonists of the film), break through these racial and gender barriers to inspire generations to come. The women each played vital roles in the historical launch of John Glenn into orbit.

NASA

Katherine Johnson

On Sunday 26th February, the real Katherine Johnson was honoured at the Academy Awards and received a standing ovation from the star-studded audience. She has led an extraordinarily inspirational life; a widow with three young daughters working as a ‘human computer’ at NASA and later was assigned the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division, here she was not only the first African American to work but also the first female. She was such a brilliant mathematician; she accomplished many incredible feats during her career. These included: calculating the trajectory for the space flight of the first American in space (Alan Shephard), the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission, and she was even asked for by name by John Glenn to verify numbers that had been calculated electronically, before he would fly out into orbit. In 2015, Barack Obama awarded Katherine the American Medal of Freedom.

maths

Dorothy Vaughn

The second of the three women in the film is Dorothy Vaughn. She too was a mathematician at NASA, working as a human computer. She was the first African American to become a staff supervisor there. Dorothy recognised that machine computers were going to be the future, so she taught all of the women in her team programming languages to ensure that they would not be replaced by computers. Perhaps even more incredibly, Ms Vaughn was one of only three African American women who calculated flight trajectories for the Apollo 11 mission in the 1960s, which allowed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land on the moon!

Mary Jackson

The third woman the film focuses on is Mary Jackson. She also worked as a mathematician at NASA, but then started working for the engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel at NASA. He encouraged her to strive to become a fully qualified engineer, however this required her to take courses, which at this time were taught at all-white schools. She had to petition the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the course. Finally, she was able to become NASA’s first black female engineer.

These three women all worked so unbelievably hard to cross racial and gender lines to provide crucial calculations that propelled humans into space! Their extraordinary mathematical abilities and willpower should be an inspiration to us all. I cannot recommend Hidden Figures highly enough – whoever you are, you will leave feeling empowered, exhilarated and inspired!”