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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > January 2018 > The real Hidden Figures

The real Hidden Figures

The astronauts may have been the heroes, but it was a group of black women crunching the numbers that won the space race for the US, reveals Jonny Wilkes
PIONEER SPIRIT Katherine Johnson and her fellow black mathematicians overcame oppression and discrimination to help put Americans in space
NASA X3, GETTY X1

John Glenn, one of the Mercury Seven astronauts, prepares to go into space and do something no American has done before – orbit the Earth.

NASA has planned the flight for months, with every detail meticulously checked and re-checked, rigorous testing carried out on the spacecraft, Friendship 7, and newly installed computers running the tens of thousands of complex calculations.

Yet Glenn will not be happy until the trajectories have been verified, by hand, by a particular person. What’s more, the brilliant mathematician he wants is an African-American woman. “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he demands, referring to Katherine Johnson. “If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.” Johnson gives the okay and the launch goes ahead on 20 February 1962.

This scene from Hidden Figures sounds like a truth-stretching, Hollywood-style dramatisation, but it actually happened (with a slight change to how close to launch Glenn made his demand). The ‘girl’ Johnson, actually 43 years old at the time, had faced entrenched racism and sexism, and made herself indispensable in the quest to put men into space. And hers is just one of the inspirational stories of women, many black, at NASA at the time. Their little-known efforts finally received the recognition they deserve in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, on which the award-winning film is based.

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About History Revealed

Imagine, if you can, a mystery bug appearing out of nowhere – one with no cure or treatment and that kills nearly everyone infected in just a matter of days. !en consider one-in-three people in Britain being struck down by it over the course of two years. Unthinkable, isn’t it? And yet that’s exactly what happened halfway through the 14th century. Where did this killer plague, Black Death, come from? How did it spread? And what was it like to live through these unutterable days? We reveal all from page 28. But don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom to see in the new year, as we celebrate some of history’s greatest pioneers this issue, from the extraordinary salvagers of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose (p46", to those magnificent men who took their flying machines into the skies (p56", to the remarkable women whose mathematical genius allowed the US to send men to the Moon (p69". We’ve also given the magazine a bit of a spring clean, taking all your comments on board, and introduced a few new regular features. I hope you like what we’ve done – do write in and let us know. Happy new Year!