“The Academy’s Science and Technology Council Presents Hidden Figures in Collaboration with NASA” Moderated by Beverly J. Wood

  • ©Powtawche Valerino, Chris LeDoux, Tracy D. Drain, Allison Schroeder, Craig Barron, Amy Mainzer, Mandy Walker, and Diane Piepol



Entry Number: 04


    The Academy’s Science and Technology Council Presents Hidden Figures in Collaboration with NASA





    America’s Mercury Space Program mastered orbital flight after a series of daunting challenges, including test rockets that exploded on launch pads. Astronauts riding on Redstone and Atlas rockets were risking their lives before all the unknowns could be answered. 

    Mercury was integral to President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. “It will not be one man going to the moon; it will be an entire nation,” he declared. “For all of us must work to put him there.” 

    It was a measure of that idealism that despite segregation, AfricanAmerican women played an integral part in America’s space program. That untold story, revealed by Margot Lee Shetterly in her book, Hidden Figures, and Theodore Melfi’s film adaptation of the same name, includes the story of Katherine Johnson, whose mathematical skills in an era of slide rules and chalkboards made her a “human computer.” Gender and skin color didn’t matter when miscalculation meant mission failure. When electronic computers were first used to calculate John Glenn’s 1962 Earth orbital flight, he asked that Johnson check the figures before launching that historic mission. 

    Amy Mainzer, astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, notes that Johnson’s calculations for numerous historic flights utilized the same basic math she uses today when searching for asteroids and comets. Tracy Drain, JPL flight systems engineer, adds that the basic physics of orbital dynamics Johnson used in plotting spacecraft navigation and orbits for Glenn’s 1962 flight were inherent in the navigational techniques used to place the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter in 2016. 

    Hidden Figures spotlights pioneers who made possible the careers of cosmic explorers like Mainzer and Drain. Melfi sums up that truth when recalling a screening of his film before an enthusiastic audience of inner-city students: “It allows them to see what’s possible.” 

    This panel features NASA “Modern Figures” scientists and “Hidden Figures” cast and crew for an examination of the past, present, and future of space math, diversity, and the movies. (Panelists subject to change.

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