Here’s the kind of news we’d like to hear more of: Currently in the works is a film about the first group of black women mathematicians at NASA who helped the moon landing happen. Producer Donna Gigliotti, director Ted Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder are adapting “ ,” Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction account of these largely forgotten math whizzes, and Fox 2000 is in talks to secure the project.
The film adaptation will focus on real-life heroes Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley, who battled Russian scientists in the space race at the office and segregation and Jim Crow laws at home. Perhaps the best known among these pioneers is Johnson, whose calculations charted the flight paths for the first mission into space in 1961 and the moon landing in 1969. Known as the “colored computers” — female engineers were then known as “computers” — their stories intersect with the fights for gender equality and civil rights.
Shetterly is the daughter of a NASA scientist at Langley and explained in a blog post that she wrote the book “Hidden Figures,” which will be published next year by Harper Collins, so that this early and integral history of NASA wouldn’t be forgotten. “As a child,” she writes, “I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”
“Most Americans have no idea that from the 1940s through the 1960s,” Shetterly states, “a cadre of African-American women formed part of the country’s space work force, or that this group — mathematical ground troops in the Cold War — helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens…. ‘Hidden Figures’ recovers the history of these pioneering women and situates it in the intersection of the defining movements of the American century: the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the quest for gender equality.”
She continues, “Langley advertised in Norfolk, VA’s Journal and Guide, seeking machine shop workers, laborers, janitors — and African-American women with math degrees. These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus — thus the moniker, the West Computers. But despite the hardships of working under Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, these women went on to make significant contributions to aeronautics, astronautics, and America’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.”
Fox 2000 hopes to get production off the ground early next year.