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Hidden Figures

I wanted to briefly encourage Veracity readers about a new movie (and book), Hidden Figures, that explores the lives of several African-American women, who made a vital contribution to America’s space program, in the early 1960s. Like several other recent films, Hidden Figures is set in Virginia, not too far from where I live, in eras when African Americans were either enslaved (The Birth of a Nation), or later segregated from the white community (Loving and Hidden Figures).

One of these talented women, Katherine Johnson, worked as a highly skilled mathematician, who at one point in her career, was asked by astronaut John Glenn to verify the reentry trajectory and coordinates for his historic NASA mission, being the first person in space to encircle the earth, in 1962. Many NASA people at the time did not trust the new IBM computers, instead relying on expert mathematicians, like Johnson, to verify the calculations.

It is difficult now to comprehend how so many white Christians advocated the corrupt concept of segregation, using the Bible for justification, as in The Birth of a Nation or Loving. In contrast, Hidden Figures, while in a handful of places slipping in needless profanity and inappropriate remarks, has overall a very positive image of Christian faith, as all of the lead African-American female characters are portrayed as actively involved in their church. Though not a “Christian” movie per se, I found it refreshing that a Hollywood movie would portray Christian faith in such a positive light, without also buying into the popular narrative that sees a conflict between science and faith. Plus, the movie is quite funny at times.

Most of the women depicted in the film had since left NASA Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia, before I started working there in the mid 1980s, as a computer programmer. The old card punch card systems, like the “new” IBM computer in the movie, were on their way out the door, upon my arrival, so the need for human “computers” to assist in such mathematical work was no longer needed. It is quite remarkable that the story of these pioneering African American women is only now being told, some 55 years later, but it really is a great story to tell. Kudos to author and Hampton, Virginia native, Margot Lee Shetterly, for bringing this story to light.

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