By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
The book, Hidden Figures, made its impact on the world in 2016. Authored by Margot Lee Shetterly, it relates the phenomenal, real-life account of four Black women — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, who went to work as calculators at National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), at a time when Black women faced indomitable obstacles.
The very idea that Black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA stations in the South, moreover during the era of segregation, challenges not only our expectations, but much of what we think we know about American history.
In the archives at Langley, the author found the names of about 50 Black women, who were employed as mathematicians for the space program, starting when it was not called NASA, but rather, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
Hidden Figures followed Katherine Johnson, a motivated mathematician from the Computer Pool of NASA, to the Black female, whose calculations made for pioneering space missions.
During the 1950’s, before computers were small enough to fit on our laps – and before they were trusted — agencies and governmental programs, like NASA, used human mathematicians, whom they called “computers”. The basal of errors could send million-dollar shuttles, off floating into space – a costly mistake they could not afford to make.
In 2016, NASA, in recognition and celebration of the mathematician, who helped launch Americans into space and land man on the moon, named a building, The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research facility, located at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
This is the very center, where Johnson not only calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, but also battled gender and racial discrimination, on a daily basis. www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-first-american-in-space
Johnson also ended up contributing in the success of missions, like John Glenn’s 1962 mission; it was on this mission he became the first American to orbit Earth www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/mercury_mission.html.
During Black History Month 2019, the NASA facility, previously named the Independent Verification and Validation Facility, was renamed, in her honor, the Katherine Johnson IV & V Facility. The IV&V program ensures the safety and success of NASA’s high-profile missions.
Johnson now has a dedicated spot within NASA and the recognition it deserves.
Gregory Blaney, NASA’s program director, states thus, “It’s an honor the NASA IV&V Program’s primary facility now carries Katherine Johnson’s name […] It’s a way for us to recognize Katherine’s career and contributions, not just during Black History month, but every day, every year.”
The American story can now be told, with pride, as there are no more figures remaining to hide.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.