As many of you are aware, I am a space, sci-fi, and aviation tragic. Given that, I am happy to share that I’ve just finished watching the movie Hidden Figures. It was provocatively grounding on many fronts!
It is a phenomenal, true story of the ‘coloured’ female mathematicians, led by three brilliant, beautiful, confident women at NASA whose on-point calculations fuelled some of America’s greatest achievements in space.
These African-American women at NASA in the 1950s, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, provided the brainpower behind one of the greatest operations in history – the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. This stunning achievement restored the USA's confidence, turned around the space race, and galvanised the world.
As a graduate student in 1938, Katherine Johnson, the movie's protagonist, became the only woman, and one of three students, to desegregate West Virginia’s State College. In 1953, Johnson was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and five years later it became NASA thanks to the National Aeronautics and Space Act 1958.
The movie muddies the timeline a bit, but Johnson's first big NASA assignment was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s historic flight in 1961. As America stood on the brink of a Third World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution!
Johnson and her team were assigned the project task of tracing out, in extreme detail, Freedom 7's exact path from lift-off to splashdown. It was designed to be a ballistic flight, like a bullet from a gun, with a capsule going up and coming down in a big parabola, setting the scene for what was to come. History confirms the mission as a huge success and NASA immediately set its sights on America's first orbital mission.
The Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human in space when he completed a 108-minute orbital flight in his Vostok 1 spacecraft on 12 April 1961. Gagarin’s flight confirmed for all involved that the space race was well and truly on!
“Get the (smart) girl to check the numbers …if she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go!”
Johnson's main job in the lead-up to, and during, the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly installed IBM 7090’s trajectory calculations. There were some very tense moments during the flight, which ultimately forced the mission to end earlier than expected. Prior to launch, John Glenn requested that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out because, as he stated in a later interview, he did not completely trust the computer. So he asked the head engineers to "Get the girl to check the numbers...If she says the numbers are good... I'm ready to go." He clarified his request for ‘the girl’ as the ‘smart’ one after seeing her complete some detailed pre-launch flight calculations and being very impressed with her talent, knowledge and skill.
There's no way a two-hour movie could tell the full story of these women, but Hidden Figures highlights NASA's relatively progressive attitude for the time, driven in large part by necessity.
Amongst her numerous future accolades, Johnson would go on to work on the Apollo program, including performing trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing before retiring from NASA in 1986.
In 2015, President Obama gave Johnson, then aged 97, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite the accolades and the Hollywood treatment, she shared that she was just doing her job and "it was just another day's work."
This true story highlights what can be done when limiting beliefs are removed, when judging others is thrown out, when rules and perceptions are challenged, when you look beyond what’s in front of you, and when you are not afraid, in this case, to work the math. In Al Harrison’s words, “Look beyond the numbers … and find the math that does not already exist.”
To all of the amazing people and brilliant minds in the vastness of clubland, there is much to learn on an individual level and as a team by watching this inspiring movie and reading the book, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. You have the power and you can be the change you wish to see.
Our industry has many challenges in front of us in terms of crucial and fundamental change to upshift and lead the way for our industry, including the arenas of relevance, currency and community. Maybe, this fantastic true story, a part of our human history, will stimulate both you and your team to embark on your next mission. And just maybe, you’ll lead the race.
I hope so! Enjoy!
PS. In the words of Katherine Johnson – “Always do your best, as if someone is watching.”
Ciao and warm regards
chief executive officer