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Former President Barack Obama shakes hands with Kevin Costner after greeting Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson during a surprise visit as then First Lady Michelle Obama met with the cast of the film “Hidden Figures” prior to a screening of the film in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium on Dec. 15, 2016. (Pete Souza)
The Skanner News
Published: 19 October 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bill which will award Congressional Gold Medals to the NASA heroines featured in the film Hidden Figures has passed through Congress and now heads to the White House to be signed into law.

The bill commends Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden for their contributions to NASA’s success and highlights their broader impact on society, along with their colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who did not live long enough to see themselves honored as heroines who paved the way for women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S. It is awarded to those who have performed an achievement that has had an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized in the recipient’s field for years to come.

Sponsored by U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), along with U.S. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Frank Lucas (R- OK), the bill would also award a fifth Congressional Gold Medal to honor all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act will honor:

  • Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division.
  •  Dorothy Vaughan, who led the West Area Computing unit for nine years, as the first African American supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.
  •  Mary Jackson, who petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School in order to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.
  • Dr. Christine Darden, who became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley. 

 

Story told in book and film

The lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden were featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book was adapted into the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

 The bill will also honor the hundreds of other women who contributed to the success of NASA during the Space Race by serving as computers, mathematicians, and engineers.

Remarkable women

Senator Kamala Harris said the four women had made, “monumental contributions to science and our nation. 

“The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long.

"I am proud our bill to honor these remarkable women has passed Congress. These pioneers remain a beacon for Black women across the country, both young and old.”

Recognition well deserved

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chair of the House Science Committee sponsored the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I want to thank my colleagues, Senator Coons, Senator Murkowski, Senator Harris, and Ranking Member Lucas, for their hard work in advancing this bill to the President’s desk," she said.

“Acknowledging the many women who have not been given the recognition they deserve for their contributions to technological advancement and competitiveness in the US has become one of my greatest privileges as a Member of Congress. /p>

“I very much look forward to this bill being signed into law, and to publicly crediting Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden, and all the women computers, mathematicians, and engineers at NASA and NACA for the integral roles they played in our space program.”

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