Hidden Figures

Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson & Dorothy Vaughan

by Glendon Francis and Ammarah Rehman


You may have seen the incredible film Hidden Figures documenting the three Black mathematicians who played a pivotal role in NASA's first voyage around the earth. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan are no longer "hidden figures" and it is imperative that we continue to share their stories.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson is a research mathematician known for her unique contributions to NASA's space programs. In 1962, Katherine was entrusted with confirming the elaborate trajectory calculations made by computers before the launching of the Friendship 7.

Johnson is a graduate of West Virginia State College with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics and French. Prior to working at NASA, Johnson served as an educator in a Black public school in Virginia. At NASA, she worked as an aerospace technologist for the Spacecraft Controls Branch and calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard and the Mercury mission. Later, Johnson started working digital computers and her accuracy helped establish new technology and the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. 

In 2015, she was awarded with the presidential medal of freedom a well deserved acknowledgement for all of her accomplishments and contributions to the field. Katherine Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson was an engineer and activist with passion for science and a commitment justice. In 1958, Jackson broke down barriers by becoming NASA's first Black woman engineer. 

Born and raised in Hampton, Virginia, she graduated from the historically Black college, Hampton University formerly known as Hampton Institute. With a dual degrees in Math and Physical Sciences she began working in Maryland as a math teacher. Joining NASA in 1951, Jackson blazed trails and bolted through glass ceilings against the forces of misogynoir. Her contributions, not only as NASA's first Black woman engineer but as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, allowed her to break down barriers for the next generation of all of NASA’s women mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Jackson had a passion and commitment towards science and improving the lives of others. Among many of her achievements, Jackson received the Apollo Group Achievement Award and Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. Jackson was deeply invested her community and was the chair of one of the center’s annual United Way campaign while also being a Girl Scout troop leader for three decades. Mary Jackson was portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the film Hidden Figures

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan worked as a NASA mathematician and in 1949 became the first Black supervisor at NASA. Vaughan's work in innovative technology at NASA led her to work with leading computer operators and engineers, becoming an expert in the FORTRAN programming coding language.

Born on September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, Dorothy was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Throughout grade school, Dorothy was an honor student and in 1926, she graduated from Wilberforce University. Prior to working at NASA, Vaughan worked as an educator. Dorothy Vaughan came to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II. Despite the Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination in the country's defense industry, Vaughan was forced to work in segregated conditions.

Dorothy Vaughan became the first Black supervisor at the then named National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She remained in this position for almost a decade, from 1949 to 1958. She taught her team the FORTRAN programming language and other concepts to prepare them for the technological age. Octavia Spencer portrayed Dorothy Vaughan in the film Hidden Figures