This small movie about three black women 60 years ago has turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year, and it’s clear why – it’s got the American Dream all over it. Not the commonly mocked Dream about two cars in every suburban garage, but the original one, the powerful one that James Truslow Adams wrote about in 1931 :
But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
These women – the mathematician Katherine Johnson, the manager Dorothy Vaughn, and the engineer Mary Jackson – had lots to contribute to NASA in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but no one paid any attention to them. They were the wrong color and the wrong gender. They were kept off in their own building, given menial tasks, and forced to use separate bathrooms and even separate coffee pots.
But the US was losing the space race. It had been working on orbital rockets as a part of the International Geophysical Year, but was beaten to first orbit by Sputnik in 1957. Its own counter, the Vanguard TV3, then blew up on the pad two months later. Explorer 1 did launch successfully another two months later, but Sputnik was six times larger than it, and big enough to carry an atomic bomb.
That was scary enough to finally start breaking down the color bar. Johnson was brought in to do orbital re-entry calculations, including those for John Glenn’s first flight, and later Apollo. Vaughn learned to program the new IBMs that were replacing the hand calculators, and got her black female staff to switch to programming too. Jackson was allowed to get an engineering degree, and did a lot of work on supersonic aerodynamics.
They all ended up with solid careers. They weren’t superstars, but they did really well in both real life and in this portrayal.
The timeline in the movie is compressed. All three of them had been at NACA for a long time – Johnson since 1953, Vaughn since 1943, and Jackson in 1951 – so they were not new hires after Sputnik as the movie implied. When NACA became NASA in 1958, it was officially desegregated. That’s when the West Computing Unit, where the women did hand calculations, was distributed among other departments, not in 1961 before Glenn’s flight. This is ordinary dramatic license, though, and not crucial to the theme.
Apparently President Kennedy wanted NASA to be a showplace for integration. That story is described in We Could Not Fail – the First African Americans in the Space Program, by Richard Paul and Steven Moss. It tells the stories of ten African American men at NASA facilities in the Deep South: Huntsville Alabama, Georgia, and Cape Canaveral. This was tough for NASA because there weren’t many qualified AAs to begin with, and fewer still wanted to work down there.
Oddly enough, the ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun took a big role in integrating Huntsville. He helped black colleges write grant proposals, encouraged contractors to be equal opportunity employers, and set up summer programs for black youth. A lot of the German engineers frequented black jazz clubs, to the locals’ astonishment. In this movie Kevin Costner is the fictional white manager who integrates Langley, but von Braun actually did that for Huntsville.
Anyway, one of the nice things about the movie from a women-in-STEM point of view is that the women here are not nerdy loners. They are part of a strong (and really well-dressed!) church community. The one who makes the greatest contribution, the mathematician Katherine Johnson, is actually a widow with three daughters who finds love and re-marries at age 41. She’s not a nun devoting her life to science. When Vaughn learns how to program in FORTRAN, she promptly starts teaching it to all her staff, hoping to keep them all together as electronic computers replace human ones. The engineer Jackson is lively and playful, especially when played by the dancer and singer Janelle Monae.
Compare this to the inventor Joy Mangano in Joy, who has to fight her hostile family and indifferent business partners for everything she achieves. She’s portrayed as a Rand-ian heroine who triumphs through individual willpower. Yet at the end she’s an ice queen living in a mansion full of glitzy Trump-ish decor, while these women are playing with their kids, singing in the choir, and doing great work for the nation. I know which ones I’d rather have as role models!