Ad Astra Per Aspera

Nonfiction or fiction plot, space rules at the cinema this month. For those who may have missed it, the movie Hidden Figures dethroned Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as the Number One film at the box office this past weekend.

Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African-American female mathematicians working at the NASA facility in Virginia in the mid-20th century, and how they used their skills as human computers to calculate trajectories for launches, landings and other things you need to do to get to and from space. It’s based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film is set in the years right up to and including the early Project Mercury missions that put the first American astronauts into suborbital and orbital flight.

The film is set in the years right up to and including the early Project Mercury missions that put the first American astronauts into suborbital and orbital flight. The late John Glenn is portrayed in the movie, as are his fellow Mercury astronauts.

Hidden Figures focuses on three women who had to battle not only sexism — but racism as well — in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s. Mathematics wizard Katherine Johnson, engineer Mary Jackson and computing supervisor Dorothy Vaughn were all integral members of NASA back then, and their stories have been largely overlooked. For that reason, go see this movie. It’s an inspiring story brought to life by wonderful actresses that gives long overdue credit where credit is due. And if the film piques your interest about that era, there’s more to learn.

IBM, which has a bit pf product placement in the film, weighs in with an inventive augmented reality app called Outthink Hidden for Android and iOS. The app, developed with the T Brand Studio arm of The New York Times, lets users activate text, photos and video content about the women depicted in the movie. This is done by tracking down AR markers within ad units on nytimes.com, via ads in select print editions of The New York Times, and at 150 geofenced locations throughout the U.S. The app also celebrates diversity in STEM education.

If you want background reading on the black female computers of the NASA facility in Virginia, the Smithsonian, New York magazine and Popular Mechanics have all done stories in the past few months. For the story of women working for NASA out west at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, check out The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, by Nathalia Holt. That book was also published last year.

As it did with Matt Damon’s The Martian movie in 2015, NASA fully supported Hidden Figures and has rolled out educational pages on its site for those who want to know more about this particular chapter of the agency’s history. Check out the Hidden Figures to Modern Figures section of the NASA site. You can also find the agency’s coverage when Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

And continuing its visible progress in diversity issues, NASA also announced new crew members for the International Space Station last week. In 2018, Dr. Jeanette Epps will become the first black American astronaut to serve a term aboard the station.
Congratulations, Dr. Epps!

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