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NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’ Honored With Congressional Gold Medals

Group of people pose for photo, including Christine Darden Sen. Tim Kaine
Christine Darden, center right, led a team of researchers on the Sonic Boom Team. She was honored with a Congressional gold medal and was featured in the book "Hidden Figures" (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Four African American women who played key roles in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) early space program in Virginia were honored with Congressional gold medals at a Capitol Hill reception on Monday.

The women’s accomplishments at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton were featured in the book “Hidden Figures” a 2016 movie by the same name.

But the event was future-oriented, with speakers emphasizing paths to bring more women and minorities into science-related professions.

“I think part of the lesson we learned with ‘Hidden Figures’ is so many people didn’t know women were doing a certain kind of work or that it was even available to them,” said metal recipient Christine Darden.

Darden was the only one of the four at the event; two women awarded medals, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, have passed away, and a fourth, Katherine Johnson, is 101 years old. 

Arlington high school student Angel Cairo got in a few words with Darden. She said Darden emphasized persistence. 

“If you want something, you’ve got to do it yourself to get it done,” Cairo. “And even though it is risky, it’ll be worth it.”

Monday’s reception was the culmination of the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act, which was signed by President Donald Trump last month. 

It bestowed five gold medals to the four women as well as a fifth to all women who served as NASA computers, mathematicians, and engineers between the 1930s and 1970s.

In the 1930s, NASA began hiring women to work in a computing unit at what was then called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton. African American women began working in the segregated West Area Unit at the facility in the 1940s.

The discrimination they encountered was a focal point for the book and movie, even as the women played a crucial role in NASA calculations used in the first U.S. space flights.

Johnson, for example, calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 mission in 1961 and John Glenn’s orbit of the earth the next year -- the narrative anchor for the Hidden Figures film. Darden, who joined NASA in 1967, eventually led the Sonic Boom Team, which helped design supersonic aircraft.

Congressman Bobby Scott and Sen. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were on hand for the reception. 


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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