Women who inspired Hidden Figures film honoured with Congressional gold medal

The four black female former NASA employees have been honoured with the highest civilian award for their contributions to space exploration

HONOUR: File photo of Katherine Johnson being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US president Barack Obama in 2015 (Photo: by Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA)

THE WOMEN who inspired the hit film Hidden Figures have each been awarded Congressional gold medals, the highest civilian honour in the US.

Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, as well as mathematician Katherine Johnson and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan were all given the awards on Friday (November 8) when US president Donald Trump signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act.

Vaughan and Jackson, who have both passed away, were awarded the medal posthumously.

The bill stated: “These four women, along with the other African American women in NASA’s West Area Computing unit, were integral to the success of the early space program.”

Presidential candidate senator Kamala Harris applauded the bill after it passed in the House last month.

She said: “The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long.”

Harris added: “These pioneers remain a beacon for black women across the country, both young and old.” 

Trailblazers

Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson, sometimes referred to as “the human computer” was an exceptional mathematician.

Johnson’s gift for numbers was so accurate that she was hired by NASA in 1953. He talents stood out amongst a host of top educated mathematicians. She went on to assist with astronaut John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth.

Katherine was one of the key players in the calculations that led to the 1969 Apollo Moon landing.

The mathematician was also a hard working single mother, having been widowed with three children.

Taraji P. Henson, who portrayed her in the 2016 film Hidden figures stated: “It was as if Katherine had every obstacle stacked against her, and yet nothing at all could stop her. That was one of her gifts and that is her legacy.”

Katherine, now aged 101, resides in Virginia.

Dorothy Vaughn
Dorothy swapped teaching for human computing and a career as a mathematician.

In 1943 she started working at NACA (predecessor of NASA). Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computing group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. At this time women of colour were being considered for roles but were still segregated from their white counterparts and as Vaughn noted: African American women needed to be “twice as good to get half as far”.

In 1961 the segregated conditions were abolished. Vaughan worked in the numerical techniques division and later focused on to the new frontier of electronic computing. She was one of the first workers to notice that electronic computers were going to be the future. She learned everything she needed, and also made sure women in her group were prepared for this shift.

During her time at NASA, Vaughan also contributed to projects on the space program with her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

She died on the November 10 2008, in Hampton Virginia.

Mary Jackson
Jackson, who died in 2005, was the first female African American engineer. She forged a path of her own, starting her career when female engineers of any background was a rarity.

In 1951, Jackson was selected to work at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section.

After 34 years at NASA, Jackson achieved the most senior title within the engineering department.

Christine Darden
Dr Christine Darden is an American mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer. She devoted much of career to aerodynamics.

Darden went on to become one of NASA’s human computers in 1967. She had a long career spanning 40 years at the Langley Research Center. Later she became a leader of the group working on sonic boom minimisation and earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering in 1983.

Darden wasn’t featured in the critically acclaimed film Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, as her career took off later than the others’. She was still in high school during the time period depicted in film. However, she is featured in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

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