On February 20, 1962, as millions watched, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. As with every NASA mission before or since, his solo voyage was the result of a massive coordinated effort; however, that effort went far beyond the Mission Control Center in Houston. Behind the Mercury spacecraft’s flight was a team of engineers, physicists, and human “computers” whose work largely went unnoticed–and now, in the movie Hidden Figures, they’re finally getting the big-screen credit they deserve.
For many boys and girls watching Glenn’s landing, the national heroes at NASA didn’t look like them. Women and people of color–like the trio that Hidden Figures chronicles, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae)–might have played significant roles in space flight, but in the 1960s their stories simply weren’t told. “NASA history was largely about the astronauts, doing battle with the Soviet Union in space,” says NASA chief historian Bill Barry, who still vividly recalls watching Glenn’s flight on a black-and-white TV on his living room floor. But in the early 1990s, scholars began to show more interest in the history of NASA’s workforce, and the institution’s archivists began to unearth those untold stories, in part by interviewing former female computers at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Later, writer Margot Lee Shetterly spoke with them as well while researching her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was optioned for a film before it was even published.
Hidden Figures focuses on the story of Katherine Johnson, who painstakingly re-confirmed thousands of calculations made by then-brand-new IBM computers–many of them to eight significant digits–in order to correctly predict Glenn’s landing. But Barry, ever the historian, sees the true hero as Vaughan, a onetime high school math teacher who recognized the potential of working in mathematics at the rapidly growing NASA, where she stood up for women computers of all races. And when IBM machines threatened to make the job of human computer obsolete, Vaughan recognized the changing landscape and, with the foresight of a successful start-up founder, taught her computers to become programmers, eventually becoming the leader of computer programming. “Now, we’re in a time when technology is shifting jobs in a similar way as it did in the ’60s,” says Barry. “Dorothy saw what was coming, and reinvented herself again and again.”
Usually, filmmakers working on projects about space travel just ask to use the NASA insignia, like in The Martian, or to shoot scenes on NASA property, like at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Transformers. But Ted Melfi, the co-writer and director of Hidden Figures, which opens wide this weekend, spent hours going through the script with Barry, at a level of detail the historian hadn’t seen since Tom Hanks’ 1998 docuseries From the Earth to the Moon. Barry ensured that the Hidden Figures team got the details right, from the models of cars at the Langley parking lot in 1962 to how long it would take news of a Russian rocket launch to reach the White House. “There were lots of weird, quirky historical things,” says Barry. “You wouldn’t notice them, unless you’re a geek like me.”
Barry even got to assist on a couple of Easter eggs. In a scene showing John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) sitting in the rocket before launch, look for a woman in a white scarf, painting on the side of the capsule. That’s Cece Bibby, the artist who designed the insignia for the craft known as Friendship 7. In the 1960s, the names of rockets were usually stenciled on by men, but Glenn wanted a special design–and when he found out the artist behind the insignia was a woman, he insisted she hand-paint it onto the spacecraft, despite the protestations of her male superiors.
But Bibby’s isn’t the only story that’s known by surprisingly few people. Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who has flown to the International Space Station twice, hadn’t heard of the women of Hidden Figures before the book and movie. In fact, Wilson built her career at NASA without female engineers as role models. “When I entered the aerospace workplace in the late ’80s, there were 85 engineers, and five were women,” she says. She heard about space travel by watching male astronauts go into space, and talking to a male astronomer in her hometown–but mostly, because of the promise of space travel. “To be adventurous, to be on the forefront of exploration–to be an astronaut really appealed to me,” she says. And with the movie’s reviews helping it clock in at over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, now young women who share that sense of galactic curiosity today can look back to the women who made history in space–before looking up to the stars themselves.