By Debra Kirby
Sometimes it takes a critically acclaimed movie to shine a light on extraordinary achievements. This has proved to be especially true when the subjects of those achievements are women or members of minorities. The movie Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name, has recently generated interest in three African American women who played important roles in the U.S. Apollo Space Program. As is often the case, once you start digging into the details around historic events or people, you discover many related interesting facts and stories. When your sources include Gale databases you can spend hours exploring and learning.
Here are some of the facts I found when I began my journey to learn more about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—the fascinating women whose stories are told in Hidden Figures.
- Katherine Johnson began her career as a “human computer” at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. Before the age of electronic computers, NACA employed hundreds of women mathematicians as human computers. Men with similar qualifications were classified as professionals; women were sub-professionals. Black mathematicians were segregated in their own office and loaned out to various divisions as needed. (Read more about Johnson in Biography In Context.)
- On 25 June 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, to address primarily the discrimination African Americans faced in the defense industry. African Americans were largely excluded from the millions of new industry jobs being created in the United States mobilization for war from 1940 to 1941. Many employers with defense contracts refused to hire blacks, often advertising new employment opportunities with “Help Wanted, White” signs. Most employers who hired African Americans segregated them into low-paid, unskilled work. This order paved the way for Katherine Johnson and other African Americans, but did not address the segregation within organizations. (See Executive Order 8802 in its original form in Smithsonian Primary Sources In U.S. History.)
- Seven years after FDR issued 8802, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) signed Executive Order 9981, ending racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces. Previously, African Americans had been trained in separate barracks and fought in separate units from whites (but usually under white officers). This racial segregation had existed since the Civil War (1861-1865). The desegregation order was significant because it opened the doors of opportunity to African Americans who were serving the nation loyally. (Learn more about racial segregation in the armed services in U.S. History In Context.)
- The first U.S. piloted suborbital flight, achieved by the astronaut Alan Shepard in the Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, did not occur until May 5, 1961. In August the Soviets conducted a second maned flight, completing seventeen orbits. The space race was in high gear, and the United States seemed to be falling farther behind. Then, on February 20, 1962, an Atlas booster propelled the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule and astronaut John Glenn to a three-orbit flight. An American had finally made it to orbit. The Mercury program was a tremendous success. Although the Soviets still led in the space race, the Mercury program reduced the gap. More importantly, it fired the public’s imagination and gave scientists and engineers the knowledge and experience critical for the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs, and the first lunar landing in 1969. (Check out the video in Science In Context of John Glenn’s famous flight, including launch and safe landing.)
What a wonderful thing when a movie can entertain as well as teach! Even better when it motivates further exploration and learning. What movies have you recently watched that made you want to learn more? Share your thoughts!