Cece Burger: Going to the moon: The real history behind Hidden Figures

For this blog, I was tasked with looking at an alternative interpretation of the U.S. push to send men to the moon. I chose to explore the experience of African-American women, which was recently portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures.

I looked at a story by Scientific American, which publishes articles with unique insights and developments in science and technology. The article The Story of NASA’s Real “Hidden Figures” by Elizabeth Howell examines the role African-American women played in computer work for NASA. Women with college degrees were being hired as human computers. Howell explains the segregation policies of the time hindered the full participation of these women in the association. Howell goes through a brief biography of some of the women who inspired the movie’s African-American female leads. One woman was Mary Jackson a highly educated scientist who worked for NASA for 30 years. Another woman was Katherine Johnson a brilliant mathematician who did vital work for NASA. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to space exploration. Another article, from HistoryExtra, explored the true story behind the movie and its relevance to America’s race to the moon. The author interviews Margot Shetterly who wrote the book that Hidden Figures is based on. Shetterly’s insight provides even more details on the impact African-American women made in helping America to the moon.

The articles I read come from a perspective that is often left out in traditional histories. They both examined the stories of female African-American mathematicians who contributed to NASA’s space program. The combination of racial and gender prejudices these women faced at the time lead them to have very different experiences than other members of society. These articles focus on exploring these unique and often difficult experiences. This approach is incredibly useful in expanding reader’s understanding of the space program and the many unheard stories of hard work and even genius. The viewpoint and experience of African-American women is a rarity in standard history. This makes these stories so much more powerful as they encourage a fuller picture of history and place importance on a diverse range of actors.


Cawthorne, Ellie. “Hidden Figures: the incredible real history behind the film.” History Extra. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/hidden-figures-incredible-real-history-behind-film.

Howell, Elizabeth. “The Story of NASA’s Real ‘Hidden Figures’.” Scientific American. Accessed October 19, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-story-of-nasas-real-ldquo-hidden-figures-rdquo/.

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