Hidden Figures, a historical drama that hits select theaters Christmas Day and expands nationwide on Jan. 6, tells the story of the black female mathematicians and engineers who helped get Americans into space: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and their many unsung colleagues. It doesn’t, however, focus on the stories of NASA’s white male engineers and astronauts, because they have been told so many times over—in books, in movies and in contemporary art.
But the feats NASA accomplished during the 1960s are inextricably linked to the so-called “colored computers” whose calculations made them possible. Chief among the icons Hidden Figures honors is John Glenn, who died Dec. 8 at 95, and who is portrayed in the film by the actor Glen Powell. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he owed his life—the one he got to continue living after Feb. 20, 1962—to Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), now 98, the space scientist who calculated the launch trajectory for his Mercury-Atlas 6 mission to orbit the Earth on that winter day.
The months leading up to the mission were tense, both for the man preparing to be blasted into space and for the country, which felt the mounting pressure of its lagging position in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. Glenn was meticulous about his physical training and simulations, but he also fully understood that math was key to his survival. Johnson knew, too, that one millisecond’s error in either direction meant the difference between Glenn’s life and death—and all that the success of his mission symbolized to Americans.
The moment in which Glenn’s and Johnson’s tireless efforts intersect is condensed for dramatic effect in the movie, but no less meaningful as it really happened. As the movie’s Glenn is preparing for takeoff, he’s second-guessing the calculations of the IBM computer, which had only recently assumed much of the work once done exclusively by hand. He picks up the phone and dials Langley Research Center in Virginia from his post in Cape Canaveral. “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he insists—the “girl” being Johnson, who, in a frenzy, redoes all the calculations, confirms they’re good to go, and gives the astronaut the confidence he needs for lift-off.
In the book Hidden Figures, which served as the inspiration for the movie, author Margot Lee Shetterly explains the moment:
In reality, the phone call didn’t happen in the minutes preceding launch, but no matter: at a time when these accomplished women were denied promotions, equal pay, and the right to use the same bathroom as their white colleagues, a man with his life on the line trusted the brain that was going to keep him alive, no matter the race or the gender of the person it belonged to.
This doesn’t mean that NASA, and the entire country, didn’t have a long way to go in securing racial equality—nor that the country doesn’t still today. What it does mean is that this country’s first feats in space exploration only happened because of the professionals who, during a time when racism characterized almost every aspect of public life, refused to let race get in the way of collective human accomplishment.
Half a century later, President Obama would award both Glenn and Johnson the Presidential Medal of Honor, three years apart. And as Hidden Figures readies for its nationwide launch, one finally gets her due as the world bids a fond farewell to the other.