Hidden Figures: The real story behind the Oscar-tipped film

How a group of black female mathematicians fought prejudice to help launch John Glenn into space

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures reveals the fascinating true story of a group of African-American female mathematicians who helped Nasa launch the first US man into space.

It is based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book of the same name telling the little-known story of Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who played key roles in the campaign to make John Glenn the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962.

The film, which opens today in the UK, stars Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, along with Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali, and has been nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Spencer.

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The true story

After World War II, the US government was involved in a tense space race with the USSR as part of their struggle to hold the delicate balance of global power.

In April 1961, the Soviets took the world by surprise by launching Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit around the Earth, making him the first person in space. Washington was desperate to catch up and put pressure on Nasa to repeat the achievement.

A vast army of scientists, mathematicians and engineers from across the US went to work on the problem, including, unusually for many organisations at the time, women and people from different ethnicities. Nevertheless discrimination remained a major hurdle.

As shown in Hidden Figures, women were not given the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts while the "computers" – the name given to the women who carried out thousands of complex mathematical calculations before the era of modern computing technology - were often treated as second-class citizens.

Black women also fought against colour-separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings, while outside the workplace, they faced segregated buses and limited access to education and housing.

In her book, Shetterly describes an incident in which a sign was placed in the dining room saying "Colored Computers", in an attempt to separate black and white staff from mingling, although it was later removed.

Historically, however, most of the segregated facilities were abolished and the computing office was racially and gender-integrated by 1958, a few years before the film is set.

Despite the obstacles, Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson rose to prominence in Nasa and made significant contributions to the space programme. Johnson became so trusted for her calculations that Glenn called for her to check the complex trajectory calculations made by the computer before his launch 1962, although in reality she was given a few days, rather than moments, as the film implies.

Vaughan, meanwhile, also prepared for the introduction of machine computers by teaching herself and her staff the programming language of Fortran and Jackson became Nasa's first black female engineer - in 1958, before the film is set.

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