Christmas 2016 gave us a very special cinematic gift: the film Hidden Figures, based on the real-life story of three black women who worked at NASA during a time when women – especially black women – were rarely hired for even menial positions. The achievements of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, along with many of their colleagues, shattered racial and gender barriers and revolutionized career opportunities for women.
During her time at NASA, Johnson conducted trajectory analysis for the first human spaceflight in U.S. history in 1961. The following year, shortly before famed astronaut John Glenn was set to board the Friendship 7 – the first orbital mission in which a human would be on board – the astronaut himself told engineers to “get the girl” to do the calculations for the mission by hand.
Engineers weren’t confident in machine calculations. Thanks to her efforts, Glenn’s mission turned out to be a success. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Honor at age 97 for her 33 years of service at Langley.
NASA speculates that Mary Jackson may have been the only black female engineer in aeronautics during the 1950s. While at NASA, she worked on dozens of scientific literature projects, specifically regarding aerodynamics. She pursued management positions well into the 1970s before deciding to leave engineering altogether.
In fact, she was demoted in 1979 and took on the role of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. During her six years as the Women’s Program Manager, she worked tirelessly to ensure women secured careers as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers at NASA.
Though she was the head of NASA’s West Area Computing Unit for nearly ten years, her department consisting entirely of black women was segregated from the other computing units at NASA’s Langley laboratory. Vaughan became the first black female supervisor ever employed at NASA, and she was often personally consulted by engineers to handle particularly difficult projects. In 1958, when segregation officially ended, Vaughan joined her caucasian coworkers and became an expert programmer.
Peddrew worked as part of Vaughan’s team, where she was hired after graduating from Storer College’s Chemistry program in 1943. She spent almost half a century working at NASA, first for the West Area Computing Unit, and then as a researcher on balance, aeronautics, and aerospace.
Wilder worked as a data analyst during her 35 years at NASA. She was one of NASA’s “human computers.” When she died in 2009, her family encouraged mourners to make donations to her church, where she served her community, or to the American Cancer Society instead of sending flowers.
Tran is currently an employee at NASA as an engineer and tester of space shuttle heat shields, but she grew up in Vietnam during the war and was later a refugee in Indonesia. As a child, before she fled the country to come to Indonesia and eventually the U.S., Tran was able to watch TV for a few hours during the weekends at a neighbor’s house. It was during one of these viewings that Tran first watched the moon landing, which inspired her to pursue a career at NASA. You can read more about her incredible story on her official NASA page.
Almost everyone knows Sally Ride was America’s first woman to be sent into space. The astronaut boarded the space shuttle not just once, but twice before deciding to teach at the University of California, San Diego.
She was also the first female to serve on investigation committees following two shuttle crashes. Ride went on to establish Sally Ride Science, an organization dedicated to motivating girls to pursue career opportunities in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.
When Heldmann was in third grade, she visited a science museum. Little did she know this field trip would change the course of her life forever and inspire her to earn her doctorate in Planetary Science. She works at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where she spends her time researching water on Mars, as well as analyzing spacecraft data and fieldwork.
Her research has played a big role in new space missions. Through public outreach programs, she hopes to get the next generation as excited as she was about space in the third grade.
Bhattacharya grew up close to her father, a dedicated pilot. At a young age, Bhattacharya voiced concern that mostly men were pilots, and asked her father if she would be allowed to become a pilot since she was a girl. Her father responded by telling her she could become anything she wanted to be – so she became a life scientist at NASA Ames.
Her work mostly focuses on changes in the human body, particularly the immune system, during spaceflight as well as the biological effects of radiation and zero gravity. She’s watched her own experiments fly into space, which she considers one of her life’s greatest accomplishments.
Hood says her path to the stars was not easy. She lost her mother and closest friend at the age of 14 and became a single mother herself at the age of 16. She says, aside from her career as an information technology specialist at NASA, her greatest achievement was graduating high school while caring for her daughter.
When she was 19, Hood participated in NASA’s Cooperative Education program at the Marshall Space Flight Center as an administrative assistant. Two years later, she was hired after receiving an Associate’s degree in Business Administration. Her promotion influenced her to pursue her Bachelor’s.
Hidden Figures, based on a book with the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, reveals the astounding and little-known legacy of some of these intelligent and groundbreaking women. Their perseverance and dedication paved the way for women like Huy Tran and Sharmila Bhattacharya, who are working hard within their own niches to reveal the secrets of our universe.
NASA is not just for astronauts. There are some truly incredible ladies working hard behind the scenes to ensure missions are successful. Whether they’re studying water on Mars, researching biological changes spaceflight brings, or just making sure astronauts get paid for their hard work, these ladies’ contributions are incredibly important for exploring our solar system and the universe.
This post originally appeared on Women 2.0.
Jennifer Grant is an American History Scholar. Studying our Country’s past makes her feel more connected to its rich history and bright future. Blogging for Americanflags.com allows Jen to create inspiring and inclusive content that she’s proud of. Jen is obsessed with coffee, aromatherapy candles, and reading historical fiction.
Women 2.0 is building a future where gender is no longer a factor. Founded in April 2006, it’s now the leading media brand for women in tech. The for-profit, for-good company takes an action-oriented approach that directly addresses the pipeline from all sides: hiring, founding, investing, and leading.