Shedding light on NASA's 'Hidden Figures'

Special to the Gazette

Although the movie "Hidden Figures" didn't win any Oscars, it won the hearts and minds of the large audience that packed the Kimball Theatre last Wednesday evening.

The special screening of the movie arranged by Marianne Johnson, Kimball's program manager, was introduced by Dr. Joel Levine, who spent 41 years as a senior scientist at NASA and knew one of the film's real-life heroines. Both the movie and Levine received standing ovation.

The trailer for 'Hidden Figures' describes as "the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, brilliant African-American women, who served as brains behind one of the greatest operations in history, the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, an achievement that restored the nation's pride and confidence."

Levine, who serves now as research professor at the College of William & Mary's Department of Applied Science, told his audience about the history of NASA, originally called National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and the Langley Aeronautical Memorial Laboratory, where in 1935 five white women, joined the first computing pool. They were called, "women computers" and they ran calculations on mechanical adding machines. The first black women joined Langley in 1943, in the segregated "West Computer" or "Colored Computer" pool.

By 1946, 400 human computers worked at Langley, and as Bill Barry, NASA Chief Historian noted, "women were much more accurate, much faster and did a better job than men and you could pay them less money than men."

I asked Levine whether he was aware of the important role "women computers" played in NASA's space program.

"I was not really aware of it," he said in an interview with the Gazette. "When I arrived at NASA Langley in 1970, I worked with several women who were originally hired as "computers." They were now engineers, mathematicians and technical editors. Of the three women portrayed in the movie, I only knew Mary Jackson. My wife, Arlene, who worked in the same building as Mary Jackson, knew her much better."

Arlene, worked at NASA for 27 years as coordinator of Green Activities at the Strategic Relationship office. She was also the investigator and author of the scholarly paper on the psychological effects of long-duration space missions and stress amelioration techniques. She earned a mile-long list of awards.

No wonder, when I asked Levine who had the greatest influence on the development of his scientific career, he said without hesitation, "Arlene, my wife of 50 years. She has always been very supportive of my career, its development and its demands."

Reflecting on the dramatic scenes in the movie 'Hidden Figures,' portraying racial segregation at Langley, Levine said, "When I arrived at NASA Langley in July 1970, the Center was totally integrated. The 'computer women' that I personally knew, both black and white were highly intelligent, hardworking and very friendly."

Not surprisingly, the three black women portrayed in the movie had a stellar career at NASA. According to a NASA statement, "Katherine Johnson's calculations proved to be critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program.... In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom."

Dorothy Vaughan, was the first black supervisor at the agency and worked at Langley for 28 years. She taught herself and other women computer programming languages and prepared them for the transition to electronic computers.

Mary Jackson, after 34 years at NASA, had achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. She served as Federal Women's Program Manager and worked to influence the career path of women in science, engineering and mathematical positions.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and amazon.com.

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