“Hidden Figures,” the story of three African-American women whose mathematical skill helped NASA launch astronauts into space and back in the early 1960s, has been both a critical and box office success. With more than $100 million in ticket sales and a stack of award nominations, the movie has inspired audiences with a true story made even more powerful by virtue of the fact that it was largely untold for 50 years. And still mostly unknown is the story of another NASA scientist who beat Hollywood to the punch by putting “human computer” Katherine Johnson’s saga on stage almost two years ago.
Heather Graham is an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C. She’s also a gamer, a feminist, and a member of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. In May 2015, the society staged Graham’s one-act rock opera, “Determination of Azimuth,” which portrays how Johnson and her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were ignored and demeaned on the job at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, because they were black and female. The story has a happy ending: Their work was validated, their expertise accepted. But they had to endure racism and sexism along the way.
Graham first learned about Johnson while she was a National Science Foundation graduate fellow in K-12 education. She spent one day a week in a majority African-American middle school in Baltimore helping teachers plan experiments and incorporate science into their lesson plans. “I asked the teachers if they ever did a unit in science about the accomplishments of African-American scientists during African-American history month,” she says, ”and they said ‘Sure, we do a unit on George Washington Carver.’ I said wait a minute, there have been so many contributions by African-American scientists since that time. We’ve got to update this curriculum. And they said, ‘If you know of any other black scientists, feel free to write something up.’ So I did.
She put together a 28-day calendar with a lesson about an African-American scientist on each day, and included included scientists going back to the time of the American Revolution. “Of all the stories I read,” Graham says, “no one quite captured my imagination like Katherine Johnson—maybe because she was in space science, maybe because she came from a poor but imaginative family and was a single mother. Something drew me to her story, so I got excited about telling it again.”
Graham received her Ph.D. in 2014 and (with co-author Eric Church) wrote “Determination of Azimuth” while she was on a postdoc grant, putting in full days of science and late nights and weekends working on the opera. “It’s actually a very technically demanding piece of theater,” Graham says. The show has seven actors on stage the entire time, plus two puppeteers, four live musicians, and two stage hands. It includes cued video feeds as well as sound effects. “It’s a very experimental show,” she explains. The story has two simultaneous timelines (“We called our staging and sets ‘Sesame Street meets Einstein on the Beach,’ ” says Graham) and all the lyrics in the opera are taken from papers Katherine Johnson wrote with NASA colleague Ted Skopinski.
“My poor actors, reciting equations!” Graham says. “We gave each audience member a ‘briefing file’ for the performance that was packed with all sorts of information on Johnson, the space program, orbital dynamics, and so on. It was awesome watching people flipping back and forth through the packet, trying to keep up with the action. We were pretty much the opposite of a big-budget Hollywood film.
“I’ve seen some of the interviews NASA has done with its modern figures’—women of color at NASA who are scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and they make me really happy,” Graham says, “because I want the message to get out that Katherine Johnson’s achievements aren’t history but rather the beginning of a movement of women in space science! Katherine Johnson is not the first black woman to accomplish some of the things she did but the first woman, period. She’s such an all purpose hero!”
While she is “super happy” to see NASA getting behind the film, Graham says “part of me is sad that the work I did on ‘Determination of Azimuth’ remains a hidden figure at NASA.” The rock opera has had only nine public performances so far, but Graham and her stage manager are on the lookout for other opportunities.
The Real “Hidden Figures”: Katherine Johnson
Katherine G. Johnson, from West Virginia, started high school at 10 and had graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University with degrees in mathematics and French by the time she was 18. She was one of the first three African-American students to attend the graduate school there. She began working at NASA in 1953, when she was a single mother raising three children. She worked for NASA until 1986. In 2015, when she was 97, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A local from Hampton, Virginia, with degrees in physical science and mathematics, Jackson joined NASA in 1951. Determined to become the agency’s first female engineer, she successfully challenged in court the Jim Crow laws that prevented her from attending the prerequisite courses required in a white high school. She was NASA’s first African-American female aerospace engineer, although later in her career she transferred to human resources to focus on recruiting women to the agency. She died in 2005.
Born in Kansas City, Vaughan (on the left in this photo, with fellow Computers Lessie Hunter and Vivian Adair) was awarded a full scholarship to Wilberforce University in Ohio when she was 15. She had six children and worked as a math teacher before joining Langley in 1943. She became the head of the West Computing group, and NASA’s first African-American supervisor. When NASA began adopting electronic computers in the early 60s, Vaughn taught herself the programming language Fortran. She died in 2008.