Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Now That Was a Surprise

A couple of nights ago we went to see the movie Hidden Figures, which we both enjoyed. It was one of those “talk about it later” movies, centering around the contribution of three Afro-American women to the space industry. I read my share of non-fiction books, but I had never heard of this trio, and I can’t imagine why. In the last two days the Internet has yielded so much information on them and their work that I can be kept busy for the next several weeks.

I was not surprised that they had to fight because of their color to achieve their success. This was the beginning of the American space program, the early sixties, still a period of racial discrimination. I arrived in America in 1963, but Los Angeles was not a city of overt racial tension, though I suppose the Watts riots of 1965 put pay to that idea. If I saw George Wallace and his dogs and water hoses on TV, it was rather like seeing the huge snowfalls in the mid-west—not quite real. This movie, by showing the everyday discrimination which these women faced with quiet courage, highlighted their dilemma. There is a wonderful scene where Katherine Goble comes running back to her work station dripping wet after having had to run half a mile in torrential rain from the “colored bathroom” because she was precluded from using the bathrooms in her building. When her supervisor wonders why she is late back from her break her response is moving—and for once effectual. It had not occurred to me that even libraries were segregated, though Dorothy found a way to get her hands on a necessary book on programming with Fortran.

I was not surprised that the protagonists had to fight because they were women. That was the excuse they were given for their failure to earn a promotion or for being unable to attend meetings where information vital to their jobs was being disseminated. And the dress code. Simple strand of pearls! Katherine addressed that one too.

But what did surprise me was that the calculations for the first manned flights were done “by hand.” Alan Shepard and John Glenn were sent skidding off in space with their flight trajectories and even the calculations to get them back to earth figured out on little bits of paper in a blue binder. It was not too far into the program when IBM machines were introduced (hence Dorothy’s need to learn Fortran), but early on huge blackboards were covered with equations and symbols and then checked and rechecked. At the time I don’t think I ever thought about it and of late I just assumed everything was calculated by computer. I have become a denizen of the computer age.

There are so many reasons to go see this film (when the Oscars roll around you will be glad you did) and until then Google is your friend and you can meet and see photographs of three outstanding women, Katherine Noble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

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