Decades before Mae Jamison climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 to become the first black woman to launch into space, there were college-educated black women breaking barriers in aeronautical advancement.
They were called human computers: black, female mathematicians who crunched numbers at NASA to calculate trajectories and return paths for crucial space flights while battling racism and sexism.
The lives of these extraordinary women are the subject of the hit biographical film “Hidden Figures,” which is up for three Oscars, won the best ensemble prize at the SAG Awards and has grossed over $100 million at the box office.
In the film, Taraji P. Henson plays physicists and mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations helped launch John Glenn (the first American to orbit the Earth) into space in 1962; Octavia Spencer portrays Dorothy Vaughan, the first black woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at NASA and Janelle Monáe brings to life Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer—who all worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia during the 1960s.
Here, Neil Maher, associate professor of history in the federated history department of the College of Sciences and Liberal Arts at NJIT, puts into perspective the historical achievements of these unsung civil rights heroines, explains why their contributions have been obscured and discusses his new book “Apollo in the Age of Aquarius,” published by Harvard University Press (out March 2017), which examines the intersection of the space program and political and social movements of the 1960s.
What did you think of “Hidden Figures?”
The film does a terrific job of illustrating one of America’s biggest technological success stories, which took place during one of the most problematic racial moments in our history—and they’re completely dependent on each other. It’s really important for people to understand that. It doesn’t decrease the respect you can have for the effort of getting man into orbit; we can still be very proud of that. But I think we can be even prouder that there were people like these three women who fought for what they believed in and fought for racial equality within that system.
These women put their stamp on American history. Why have their contributions been obscured?
Racism. We have to remember that the Mercury Seven astronauts were, in many ways, symbols of a white, male culture. So if it became known that African-American women were key to getting these men into space, it might jeopardize the idea that the space race was this sort of white, male success story. That was threatening at that time.
Did the movie get it right when it came to racial and gender inequality at NASA?
Although racism was prevalent at NASA, there were some ways in which the space agency was actually ahead of the game when it came to trying to implement racial equality. The 1964 Civil Rights Act actually outlawed racial discrimination in the workplace but exempted federal agencies. In 1966, NASA went beyond that Civil Rights Act and established an equal employment policy that tried to make it a more race blind environment in which people could work.
Why were African-American women tapped to do human computer work?
It was a low-paying job, so they had African-American women do it. NASA, at the height of its employment in 1965, employed 3,400 employees and only 3 percent were African-American. So what these women went up against in the movie was very real.
How does your new book, “Apollo in the Age of Aquarius,” examine the impact of the space race on the political movements of the 1960s?
The 1960s was a time of cultural revolt. The summer of 1969 when Apollo 11 took off for the moon was also the summer of Woodstock. You had hippies, civil rights activists, feminists and environmentalists all clamoring for change. My argument is that these moments and the space race are very much interconnected. Apollo 11 was a moment when people could forget about the turmoil and focus on the positive. But it also served as a tool to say, “Look, let’s not worry about what’s out there in space. Let’s turn around and look at problems here on Earth.” People were concerned that the race to the moon was actually siphoning resources, money and capital away from a host of problems back on Earth. My book tells that story.
And we also see this in the film. The women go to work to put men into orbit, while walking by protests in the street over segregation.
In many ways, these women had three jobs. They were incredible mathematical minds that had a job with NASA, calculating the trajectories of giant spaceships. They were civil rights activists, trying to promote racial and gender equality. And not only were these women brilliant and socially active, but after work, they would go home and take care of their families. It was really a triple burden for them, which makes their accomplishments all the more unbelievable.
Be sure to visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Programs for additional information on the acitvities and events taking place on campus throughout Black History Month.