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Hidden Figures

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The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.

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Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
  • The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
  • As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers”, we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Gobels Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.
  • Approximately one year (early 1961 to early 1962) – what is the height of the American-Soviet space race – in the life of three female friends who worked in the female African-American computing section of NASA at Langley, is presented. Their largely unheralded at the time contributions to the advancement of the American space program are dramatized, their contributions which they were able to achieve despite facing both gender and race issues, the latter as much of the US, including NASA, was still segregated. Mary Jackson, assigned to the space capsule heat shield team, is encouraged by one of the engineers on the team to apply for one of the more senior engineering positions, he seeing her expertise. In what ends up being the Catch-22, Mary does not have the necessary qualifications for the promotion, and cannot get those qualifications as the extension courses are not taught in any high school accessible to African-Americans in Hampton where she lives. Her struggles are exacerbated by her husband Levi Jackson, a civil rights activist who only sees the advancement of African-Americans in a narrow view. Dorothy Vaughan has been acting supervisor of the section, only having the responsibilities but not the title or the associated pay. Dorothy believes not getting that promotion is largely the doing of her Caucasian supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. With the first IBM mainframe computer just having been purchased at NASA, Dorothy, with the odds stacked against her, tries to learn as much as she can on her own about its workings to make herself and the entire African-American female computing section relevant in this changing time. And widowed mother Katherine Gobel is the mathematical genius whose expertise in analytical geometry gets her assigned to the Space Task Group under the lead of Al Harrison, a no nonsense man who wants the job done at any cost. To get to Harrison, Katherine has to go through lead engineer Paul Stafford, who sees her as an irrelevant underling, he always falling on the excuse of clearance to quash Katherine’s ability to do her job effectively. Her burgeoning romance with National Guardsman Jim Johnson is also dramatized, their relationship despite their rocky start.

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