#Movies such as “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13” and the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” have told the story of the early #Space program from the point of view of astronauts and senior flight controllers and engineers. But truth to tell, 400,000 people participated in one way or another in the race to put men on the moon. Each one of them have a story to tell. The upcoming movie, “Hidden Figures,” tells the story of three of the people, who happen to have been African American women, who worked for NASA during that time. The trailer for the film, coming in January, has just been released.
The three women in question are Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, described as a math genius on the level of John Nash or Stephen Hawking, Mary Jackson, the first female engineer to work at NASA, played by Janelle Monae, and Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spenser. The movie focuses on their efforts to calculate the trajectories to put John Glenn into orbit and, as important, bring him home to Earth. Naturally, working as NASA’s Langley Spaceflight Center in Virginia during the Jim Crow era, the three women have to put up with both gender and racial discrimination. But, the early space program was, if anything, a meritocracy. The three women wrested respect from white male space agency officials, including Al Harrison, a NASA honcho played by Kevin Costner, and John Glenn, himself, played by Glen Powell, whose life literally depends on they getting the numbers right.
The relationship between the Apollo program and African Americans is considered a complicated one. Many regarded the early space program as a white male-dominated enterprise that was conducted at the expense of African Americans. The musician Gil Scott-Heron composed a song, a vile piece of work, entitled “Whitey on the Moon,” that expressed this sentiment in raw terms. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy conducted a protest demonstration during the launch of Apollo 11, playing the skunk at the garden party.
“Hidden Figures,” besides telling stories of three unsung heroes, exposes the lie behind that smear. To be sure no African Americans or women have walked on the moon (yet) but plenty helped the men who did land on the moon and, as President John F. Kennedy put it, bring them safely home to Earth. For them, the space program was empowering,