I saw the movie Hidden Figures today. Fabulous movie. But why did it take so long for me to know about these women?
Me of all people should have known about these women. I am a huge fan and “student” of modern space exploration. I do workshops for teachers about the history of the American space program and an as a science teacher in middle school I taught a class called “ Rocket Science.” We made timelines and posters and did research about the Apollo and Mercury missions. Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies. The names Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are very familiar to me. Why did I never hear about the African American women mathematicians who helped NASA and the USA win the space race? How could that be? I thought everyone involved with NASA was a white man.
Before there was NASA there was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Before space flight there was aeronautics, and airplane flight was a new, very mathematically intense field. This was way before the computers we have today. It was even before we had calculators. There was a lot of data associated with testing planes, making planes better, and improving planes. The engineers involved felt if there was a huge “computing pool” of people, this might be an efficient way to process the data that came from aeronautic research. They hired smart math graduates, all women, all white, until 1943. Then, with the demands of World War II they began hiring African American women. Pressure from A. Phillip Randolph, a civil rights activist, to FDR, resulted in Executive Order 8802 which said: There shall be no discrimination in war industries and the federal government. Within 18 months after Executive Order 8802, a segregated group of African American women mathematicians began working at Langley Memorial Aeronautics Lab in Hampton Virginia.
The facilities were segregated: segregated bathrooms, lunchroom and workspaces. These women were called “ computers”— – someone who made calculations and crunched numbers for the engineers developing aerospace technology. Some women would analyze data from flight simulations, while others did theoretical work. There was a full spectrum of duties, everything from simple calculations to high-level math.
The story is so exciting but unknown, until now. It took courage, talent and lots of guts to do what they did.
Run, don’t walk to the theater and see this movie. Educators show this movie and discuss its significance!
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