The Women of Nasa by Rhona McGonigal

Science Grrl Glasgow were invited to a recent screening of Hidden Figures. Here’s how Rhona McGonigal, SG Glasgow’s Artistic Director, found the film:

Rhona: I highly recommend getting out to the movies to watch Hidden Figures, a wonderfully moving and inspirational film. Hidden Figures is set during the 1960’s “Space race” at NASA in the segregated state of West Virginia. The story, based on true events, details the incredible achievements of three African-American women: Katherine Gobel-Johnson (mathematician); Dorothy Vaughan (engineer); Mary Jackson (engineer). These extraordinary women greatly contributed to pioneering work at NASA and beyond despite the dual prejudices of colour and gender at that time. Their accomplishments in the field, and those of the many other female mathematicians involved, were hidden away for many years until they were recently uncovered by Mary Lee Shetterly.

I will begin by introducing these pioneering women and discussing the importance of their stories today.

Katherine Gobel-Johnson

Katherine Gobel-Johnson was a naturally gifted mathematician from her early years with a fascination for numbers. She was unusual in her peer group by completing high school and attending College. At the age of 34, Katherine was offered a position with the West Area Computing section at NACA (now NASA), headed, unofficially, by Dorothy Vaughan and a group of black female mathematicians and engineers. She was responsible for calculations contributing to the success of many key space missions culminating in the moon landing. A testament to her ability was that the astronaut John Glenn would not agree to launch without confirmation of the calculations by Katherine. After receiving such strong mentorship from High School teacher Miss Turner and College professor Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor she pursued a career in mathematics. At NASA it is said that she didn’t simply complete the task she was given, she asked questions, and became known to the male engineers, and ultimately relied upon. This inquisitive nature led to her inclusion in the programs normally reserved for males. Later her insistence that she needed to know all the information, led to her inclusion at the briefings. So it was her forthright nature and failure to see why she shouldn’t be included as she was more than capable that overcame any workplace bias. In later life she was very active in promoting gender and race equality and was an active STEM ambassador. In 2011 the Katherine G. Johnson Science Technology Institute at Alpha Academy in Fayetteville, N.C  was opened in her honour, and in 2015 she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barrack Obama to acknowledge her lifelong contribution not as an African American or a female but simply as a mathematician.


Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan was also a skilled mathematician and was the first African-American woman to supervise staff at NASA. Dorothy began her work for NASA during WW2, carving out a successful career in the West Area computing unit. She had incredible foresight and was a keen advocate of opportunities for women within NASA: instead of allowing herself and her team to become obsolete upon the introduction of machine computers, she taught herself and subsequently her staff the FORTRAN programming language. This kind of attitude gained her a great deal of respect and subsequent responsibility that females had not previously been afforded.




Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley
Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was a graduate in mathematics and physical science who went on to become an aerospace engineer at NASA after joining as a computer in 1951. Against the difficulties faced in gaining higher education during this time, she successfully petitioned to the City of Hampton to allow her to attend the College for further training. After attending these training programmes, she ultimately became the first black female engineer at NASA. Kazimierz Czarnecki her engineering supervisor played a major part in encouraging Mary to overcome these barriers and reach her full potential. In later life, Mary advised women and other minorities on how to advance their careers and she herself took a step down from her role as an engineer to take a position in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field where she helped to influence the career paths of many women in STEM.


What I found thought-provoking in this movie is that once people strip away the labels that have been created in their minds and simply accept someone for their capabilities, a lot can be achieved together. There are many dimensions to this movie, but I think it’s a significant step forward that Hollywood and the world is now acknowledging the incredible contribution of females working in STEM, contributions that have largely been attributed to their male counterparts, an all too common trend in science. It’s encouraging to think that these women didn’t just let fate take its course but actively paved the way for NASA today, an organisation that is now led by an African-American man with a female deputy.


Hidden Figures is currently showing at Cineworld on Renfrew Street:


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