We’re Living in a New Era for Women in Space, On Screen and Off
Read an excerpt from the new book, “Space Craze,” by Smithsonian space historian Margaret Weitekamp
The critically acclaimed film Hidden Figures (2016) brought public attention to significant aspects of NASA’s history. Based on Margo Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, the movie dramatized the real-life story of three African American female mathematicians—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jack son (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer)—who worked at the aeronautical research facility that became NASA’s Langley Research Center.
They began their careers as human computers, a mathematical equivalent of the secretarial pool used in many research centers at the time. Unlike fledgling male engineers, however, women computers did their work without the hope of professional advancement beyond their existing employment. At Langley in Hampton, Virginia, those jobs were also racially segregated. The award-winning movie took some liberties with historical accuracy, but it brought widespread recognition to the women’s remarkable careers. Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn all made significant real-life contributions to the space program: Johnson calculated rocket trajectories and orbital paths, publishing her technical findings; Jackson became NASA’s first Black female engineer; and Vaughn, the first Black woman to be a supervisor at Langley, also helped program the first mechanical computers at the center.
This history was not unknown. After all, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015, before both the movie and the book came out. And NASA announced some months before the movie was released that a new building at Langley would be called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. But the popular reception of the movie greatly increased awareness of their story. Perhaps most significantly, the term “hidden figures” became shorthand for histories that had been forgotten (or previously ignored or dismissed), giving people a way to name those whose work had largely been overlooked.
The time seemed right for celebrating NASA’s women. In April 2016, Nathalia Holt published Rise of the Rocket Girls, recounting the histories of the women working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from its earliest days. Also in early 2016, months before Hidden Figures came out, Maia Weinstock, a science writer at MIT and Lego enthusiast, began designing a set of minifigures or “minifigs” depicting notable women of NASA.
Weinstock was particularly attuned to stories of women she thought were underappreciated, such as astronomers or engineers. Weinstock created the figures and their miniature stages using a technique called “kit bashing”: combining or altering existing pieces from many different Lego sets. She also used Minifigs.me, a company that creates custom minifigures. In the end, her prototype set depicted five women, including fellow MIT engineer Margaret Hamilton, who developed the software for the Apollo lunar guidance system, and Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief of astronomy and an early proponent of the Hubble Space Telescope. When posed on their small stages, each minifig evoked famous photographs of the actual women. Mathematician Katherine Johnson was shown working at her desk. Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, stood on either side of a space shuttle orbiter.
Weinstock created the set to compete in an ongoing contest on the Lego Ideas website, where it met with popular acclaim. Her entry, titled “Ladies Rock Outer Space,” included photographs and descriptions of her creations. According to the website’s rules, suggestions that receive ten thousand online votes are considered by Lego for production, although adoption is not guaranteed. As she promoted her entry on social media, online articles quickly picked up the story and well-known stars boosted its visibility. It also got some unexpected celebrity endorsements. Musician Pharrell Williams, a producer of Hidden Figures, tweeted about it, as did Jemison herself. Janelle Monáe put it on her Instagram. Some respondents expressed their wishes that they had had a toy like this, highlighting prominent women, when they were growing up. The Girl Scouts’ Twitter account tweeted about the prospective set. In less than two weeks, Weinstock’s entry reached the required ten thousand votes. Over the next year, Lego’s design team crafted the final 231-piece commercial set, which launched in November 2017. The three builds included in the final set captured the spirit of Weinstock’s creation with slightly different execution of the final concepts. The final set did not include the Katherine Johnson minifig because she declined to participate.
The popular response to the hotly anticipated original Lego set revealed that customers were eager to embrace historical figures who had been long overshadowed. At the Lego store in Manhattan, customers lined up out the door for the kit’s first day of sale. According to CNN.com, within its first twenty-four hours on sale, the Women of NASA Lego playset became the best-selling toy on Amazon. The kit tapped into a contemporary interest in recovering the history of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and promoting those fields to young women and girls. Women’s significance to spaceflight was seen as important to celebrating past achievements and inspiring the next generation.
THE SISTER OF APOLLO
NASA’s leadership had its own interest in reclaiming women’s contributions to the agency to redefine its future. In 2019, NASA renamed the street outside its headquarters building in the nation’s capital “Hidden Figures Way.” In 2020, NASA held a separate ceremony to name the headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson. These public recognitions of the Black women who supported NASA’s
early achievements dovetailed with the stated goals of NASA’s Artemis Program.
Artemis, which was announced in late 2017, reoriented NASA’s human spaceflight exploration targets. Rather than pursuing, in sequence, the ambitious triple destinations of Earth (ISS), Moon, and then Mars, as previously planned, Artemis focused on returning humans to the Moon. Initially, the goal was to return a man and send the first woman to the lunar surface. As reformulated, however, the program aims became more directed: “to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.” The program’s name, Artemis, after the sister of Apollo, both recalled the heyday of lunar landings and looked forward to women’s planned inclusion. NASA has promised that Artemis will be “the broadest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history.”
The first all-woman spacewalk occurred in October 2019, when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir conducted scheduled work outside the ISS. NASA cited the occurrence as evidence of greater representation of women in all aspects of space and an investment in future exploration. As a feature story on NASA’s website reminded readers that Koch and Meir continue “a tradition that goes back to our earliest days,” citing, by name, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson as well as astronomy chief Nancy Grace Roman and Apollo guidance computer software engineer Margaret Hamilton. NASA’s public commitment to including the first woman and the first person of color in the next human Moon landing will require supporting a diverse astronaut corps in ways big and small.