Hidden Figures: A Mission to the Moon and the Fight for Parity

America’s “impossible” mission to the moon successfully took place fifty years ago this week. The mission was a complete and utter triumph, living indelibly in the minds of all who witnessed it, namely because they United States had utterly outdone the Soviets’ infamous Sputnik launch. Despite other alarming Cold War events, like the construction of the Berlin Wall, war in Korea, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, the notorious Space Race captured the attention of many. To this day, some debate whether the United States truly had to land a man on the moon; many contend that it was an obtuse waste of money and a superficial manner to demonstrate the United States’ supremacy over the USSR. What many don’t debate, however, or are even aware of, was the role that women played in these infamous, historical space races.

I first watched Hidden Figures on a plane to Greece, where I would be spending the Fourth of July (super patriotic of me, I know). I chose the movie as the three African American Women on the microscopic image of the tiny plane TV looked like they had a story to tell. And they did. (Minor plug: If you haven’t seen the film yet, you need to).

Hidden Figures tells the story of well, hidden figures. The film paints the story of three African American women, who worked at the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) as mathematicians and engineers during this very space race. Never heard of them? Not surprising. They are hidden figures. Like those people who singlehandedly take on every responsibility in group projects and are never recognized for it. But aggrandized. This successful mission to space is accredited to the mathematics and engineering behind the journey, powered by these three women, who did not achieve widespread recognition of this success until, well, now. Fifty years later.

As the only black women on the team, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan began their journey at NASA in a unit segregated by race and sex. Black women at the time were constrained by Jim Crow laws that mandated the segregation of African Americans, and the restrictive roles that women were confined to (and still are today in many places) : nurse, teacher, or mother. Not to mention, access to university (where one would likely need to go to send a human to the moon in the first place) was incredibly limited. Despite restrictive circumstances, these women were tenacious. They followed their passions and dreams, fighting against all inhibiting stereotypes that would pigeonhole them into specific roles or hold them to certain stereotypes.

Like the fact that women and math were like oil and water – they innately do not mix, many thought. Nonetheless, the National Geographic recounts, “As a girl growing up in rural West Virginia, Katherine Johnson loved to count. She counted everything: the steps between her house and the road, the number of dishes she’d washed—anything that could be quantified. Johnson started high school by the time she was 10. By 18, she’d finished college, where she excelled as a math major and was sometimes the only student in the hardest courses offered. She was, by all accounts, brilliant.” When society and conservatism were busy restricting women to certain roles, these same women were sending men to the moon. Not to mention, while these women are each passed up for promotion a number of times, as there is no space for a permanent supervisor of the colored group, Mary identifies a flaw in the heat shield, which foreshadows the infamous salvaging of Friendship 7. And while these three women were forced to walk a half mile to reach the colored restroom, they were leading the efforts behind the launch and unanticipated success of Apollo 11.

Enough history; time for the point. On July 14th, The Times of India published an article titled, Chandrayaan-2: India’s 1st space mission being led by women scientists. Vanitha Muthayya and Ritu Karidhal are leading the country’s second mission to space. While Vanitha focuses on the data aspects of the mission, Ritu focuses on the operations of the mission itself, such as the lunar orbital insertion of the craft. According to the article, these women alongside countless others, have played a pivotal role in various space missions, hardly ever receiving the limelight or credit they so deserved. Sounds all too familiar.

Women have made grandiose strides in the past decades. The above trend substantiates that. But still we have a way to go. These heroes, from Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan to Vanitha Muthayya and Ritu Karidhal, are a testament to women around who persistently work to destroy commonly-held stereotypes; vehemently endeavoring for not only a seat at the table, but also for the recognition of the triumphs they achieved in that very seat. These women are a true attestation to the value in fighting against all odds for equality; for access to equal opportunity, and to be recognized just as equally for their success and effected changes in the world.

Part of believing is seeing, and for young girls to know that they, too, can be astronauts, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, we first need to recognize the very women who fought for that dream to become a reality. The women who sent a man to the moon. The women who are, as you read, sending others to outer space. These women cannot be hidden; they must be recognized, not only for their fight to parity, but also for the momentous change they have made, and the incredible doors of possibility that they have opened to women around the world.

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