'Hidden Figures' and the true NASA stories behind the movie

NASA's chief historian explains the real events that inspired the inspirational Oscar-nominated film.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
3 min read

The women who helped pioneer space travel have rocketed into the public eye thanks to the acclaimed movie "Hidden Figures". We spoke to NASA's chief historian to learn more about the remarkable true story of these pioneering mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists, and to explore how the film dramatises their struggles. (Beware of some minor spoilers.)

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the Oscar-nominated "Hidden Figures" focuses on the lives of three black American women who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later renamed NASA.

Katherine Johnson, played in the film by Taraji P. Henson, was a brilliant geometry expert who worked as a computer -- that is, a person who computes. Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was a mathematician and aerospace engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar-nominated Octavia Spencer, was the first black supervisor at NACA and one of the first computer programmers.

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Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monae star as the pioneering women who helped send America into space.

20th Century Fox

NASA's chief historian, Bill Barry, explains that the film, which has been nominated for a slew of awards, depicts many real events from their lives. "One thing we're frequently asked," he says, "is whether or not John Glenn actually asked for Katherine Johnson to 'check the numbers.'" The answer is yes: Glenn, the first American in orbit and later, at the age of 77, the oldest man in space, really did ask for Johnson to manually check calculations generated by IBM 7090 computers (the electronic kind) churning out numbers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though the film shows Glenn asking for Johnson's approval from the launch pad, she was actually called in well before the launch. Calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took a day and a half. Her calculations matched the computer's results exactly. Not only did her conclusions give Glenn and everyone else confidence in the upcoming launch, but they also proved the critical computer software was reliable.


The painting seen here on the "Hidden Figures" set actually hung on the walls of NACA and NASA.


To add to the accuracy of the film, NASA consulted on the film's script, answering questions and providing photographs, documents and films for the filmmakers. NASA even loaned a few items for use as props in the movie. For example, look out for the painting on the wall of NASA's offices (pictured here over Kevin Costner's shoulder).

That painting was part of a series depicting the history of flight from Icarus to the 20th century, which actually hung on the walls of the real Langley Lab in the NACA days. The paintings were in storage and in need of restoration when they were loaned to the movie and placed on set in Atlanta as a link to the real offices.

The film compresses the sequence of real events to set the story around 1961, when Glenn's first mission took place. "If the film was a documentary, many of the events would have been spread out over the late 1940s through the early 1960s," says Barry. For example, a lot happened in 1958, the year NACA became NASA: Mary Jackson qualified as NASA's first black engineer, Katherine Johnson joined the newly formed Space Task Group, and segregation ended.

In real life, the head of the Space Task Group was a man named Bob Gilruth. Unlike the fictional character played by Kevin Costner, he didn't dramatically take a crowbar to a restroom sign.

"Desegregation of bathroom and dining facilities happened gradually and quietly over the 1950s at Langley lab," explains Barry. Langley lab was a federal facility but was located in Virginia, which had state-mandated segregation. "There was some tension between local and federal 'rules' on this issue," says Barry.

Segregation effectively ended when specialised workers were distributed among offices and facilities instead of being grouped together in pools. The segregated West Computing Unit, which comprised African-American women, was eliminated in the spring of 1958.

Women like Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan blazed the trail for America in space and for black women back on Earth. From the hidden figures of the past to the scientists and engineers of today, you can go to NASA's website to meet the diverse range of extraordinary people with their eyes on the stars.

"Hidden Figures" is in cinemas in the UK this weekend. The Oscars take place on 26 February.

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