The Hidden Figures


Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson with colleague

Image Courtesy: The Vintage News

Hidden Figures of NASA tells the story of three African American mathematicians, who together were also known as the “human computer”. These women, in answering their country’s call to service during World War II, presented the mathematical equations and calculated trajectories necessary for NASA’s first flight to space. They helped America in achieving a significant victory against Russia in the Space Race.

The three women behind NASA’s human-computer were Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Each of whom challenged the norms of the 1960s because their chosen field of study and computing work was dominated by males.  

Image Courtesy: NASA

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) was an African American mathematician who worked initially with National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later NASA. Dorothy Vaughan was hired by NACA in 1943 and she retired in 1971. Dorothy Vaughan also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program and became an expert FORTRAN programmer.


Mary Jackson

Image Courtesy: Getty Images

Mary Jackson (April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005) was an African American Aerospace mathematician and mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She earned her B.S. in Mathematics and Physical Science from the Hampton Institute in 1942.  In 1958 she became the first black engineer to work with NASA.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015

Katherine Johnson (born in August 26, 1918) she is an African American mathematician who worked with NASA for almost 30 years prior to retiring in 1986. She described her experience with NASA, explaining “I loved going to work every single day.'' She completed her  B.S. in Mathematics and French from West Virginia State College in 1937. She is also a pioneering NASA research mathematician and physicist, who was honored by the nation’s highest civilian award- Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her extensive contributions to different NASA projects.

She is part of major projects by NASA including Project Mercury. Project Mercury started in 1958 and lasted through 1963 in the United States. It is the first ever human spaceflight program. The objective of the project was to put man into Earth’s orbit and safely bring him back to Earth. The astronauts of this project were known as the “Mercury Seven”.

John Glenn

John Glenn (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Before boarding he trusted for his safe return to earth Katherine Johnson and said “Get the girl, check the numbers and if she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”

Tribute to The Hidden Figures

“Hidden Figures” is a non-fiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, published in 2016. She began the book in 2010. In this book she wrote about the lives of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. There is also a Hollywood biographical drama film based on this book released in 2016, named Hidden Figures, in tribute to the female mathematicians who worked at NASA. It was directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Melfi.

Jim Bridenstine (born June 15, 1975) NASA Administrator, author of the book “Hidden Figures” Margot Lee Shetterly and Sen.Ted Cruz were all present at the renaming ceremony. Cruz said during the ceremony "A street sign is a piece of metal ... but it's a lot more than that," and adding to this he explained, "inspire generations after generations of kids, and particularly little girls, who may be told in school, 'You can't do something.”

The cast of Hollywood Biography Hidden Figures;Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan And Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly — based on Hollywood biography Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures Way

In tribute to these women, NASA renamed the street “E Street SW” to “Hidden Figures Way” to honor their work as a human-computer at the agency in Virginia when NASA first launched astronauts in space. This street is located in Washington outside NASA headquarters and was unveiled on 12, June 2019.

The new street sign for Hidden Figures Way outside NASA headquarters in Washington is unveiled during a ceremony on June 12, 2019. (From left to right: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Sen. Ted Cruz, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and "Hidden Figures" author Margot Lee Shetterly.) - June 12, 2019

Image Courtesy: Joel Kowsky/NASA

Tayyaba Qamar