NASA Examines Key Role of 'Hidden Figures' Amid Langley Center Celebration

hidden figures scene Meeting Glenn
In the upcoming film "Hidden Figures," Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is joined by her co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) as she greets astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), the man destined to become the first American to orbit Earth. (Image credit: Hopper Stone)

NASA launched a celebration of the Langley Research Center's 100th anniversary yesterday (Dec. 1) with an educational panel on the upcoming movie "Hidden Figures" and the real-life Langley employees it depicts, answering student questions about their life and times and NASA history.

"Hidden Figures" depicts the history of mathematician Katherine Johnson and other African- American women who performed calculations for the researchers on Langley's Hampton, Virginia, campus starting in 1943, although the film focuses on the early 1960s. (A computation facility at Langley was recently named for Johnson.) During the panel discussion, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden joined Bill Barry, NASA's historian, and Julie Williams-Byrd, an electro-optics engineer at Langley. Ted Melfi, the director of "Hidden Figures," called in virtually to take questions about the movie.

"The arts enable us to become storytellers," Bolden said at the beginning of the panel discussion. And NASA has seized the production of this movie, as well as the new book it's based on, as an opportunity to share and reflect on the accomplishments of those Langley women. [On 'Hidden Figures' Set, NASA's Early Years Take Center Stage]

"They weren't actively hidden figures, so much as they were overlooked," Barry said. "As a historian, I can tell you, there were thousands of people that worked for [NASA's predecessor] NACA and NASA whose stories are wonderful and should be told, but just haven't come out yet."

Although NASA had been working on projects to interview and document women computers at Langley since the 1990s, Barry said, their story remained little-known. (The job role of "computer" was a human one, prior to electronic computers coming on the scene.) Margot Shetterly, the book's author, grew up in the Langley community and was a perfect choice to bring their stories out.

"I've heard [Shetterly] in interviews," Bolden said. "She said she couldn't understand what people were talking about, about there being no minorities and no women at Langley or in NASA — because she went to church with them. She went to school with their kids."

Melfi discussed casting the movie, which stars Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson; Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, who became the head of the black women computers; and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, who became an engineer. Kevin Costner plays the head of Langley's Space Task Group, actually a combination of three real-world directors, and Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst play a scientist and head of the white women computers, respectively.

"These people played against type, because — there are themes in the movie that are tough, that will be tough for you to watch," Melfi said, referring to the sexism and racism confronted in the movie. "I really wanted character actors that were likable to play roles that were unlikeable; it would make it easier to take." 

The film focuses on performing calculations for John Glenn's historic orbit around Earth in 1962 and America's other first orbital launches, where putting an object (or person) into a sustainable orbit around Earth forced researchers to take into account much more than previous rocket work.

"As you'll see in the movie, the thing that really threw them for a loop was they had been doing parabolic computations, which is suborbital spaceflight, and they went into a type of math that goes to what's called orbital mechanics, something that not a lot of people knew anything at all about in those days," Bolden said. "All of a sudden, you find that things don't work." [America's First Spaceship: Project Mercury (Infographic)]

It was tricky to depict those mathematical challenges in an engaging way for the big screen, Melfi said — at one point, Jim Parsons' character explains the "huge jump" in mathematics needed to calculate the first orbital trajectories. Melfi consulted with NASA frequently, as well as Rudy Horne, a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and an on-set math specialist, to understand the details and get the math accurate, but still understandable.

"We tried to make it as cinematic as possible, and I hope we did a good job — you'll have to let me know if we did," Melfi said.

The panelists emphasized the importance of mathematics, even in the modern world where digital computers can easily tackle the calculations the Langley mathematicians wrestled with for the early space program.

"Computers are very, very great," Williams-Byrd said. "But if we don't understand the information that we are putting into the computers, then we never know what we're getting out of it. … As a physicist, you have to understand things like gravity, and you have to understand the laws of science to help you understand exactly what you're trying to get out of that solution."

Bolden urged the students attending the panel to look for lessons within the movie — on the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, the way the space program works and how the characters push through discrimination to do excellent, essential work. And for other viewers, it should still prove an eye-opening look into the Virginia community that put the first American into orbit around the Earth.

"I was stunned by the degree to which Ted and his production staff were focused on every little detail of things, trying to get the look and the feel and the equipment that was being used, the conversation, the technology — they did a phenomenal job," Barry said. "And made a great movie out of it as well."

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Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.