CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – More than 60 years after Friendship 7 launched from Cape Canaveral carrying John Glenn to orbit Earth, actors who are retelling an unknown part of that story toured the launch pad on Monday.
The movie “Hidden Figures” is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly that tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three female African-American mathematicians who helped regain the U.S. lead in the space race by successfully calculating Friendship 7’s flight trajectory.
Actors Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play the three women known as “human computers,” calculating by hand before motherboards could accomplish the task.
Human computers were responsible for computing the trajectories for spacecraft based on their weight, the lift capacity of the rocket and the orbit of the planets, according to NASA.
The final calculation of Glenn’s orbit around the Earth took Johnson three days, not 20 minutes, as depicted in the film version, director Theodore Melfi said.
The actors and Melfi stopped Monday at NASA’S Kennedy Space Center Monday during a tour to promote the movie, which premieres nationwide on Jan. 6.
In spite of the many hours and countless missions that the women worked, their accomplishments were long overshadowed by their male engineer counterparts, and their stories went untold for many years.
Not until more than six decades after Glenn orbited the Earth and returned safely was Johnson fully recognized for her work and awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
That part of Johnson’s story is what drew Henson and her castmates to play the mathematicians.
After speaking with Johnson, whom she plays in the movie, Henson described the now 98-year-old woman as “selfless.”
“Even though you’re not thinking 'I’m changing the world by my actions' ... you are,” said Henson. “And the fact that these ladies did not complain, they just got up every day and fought the good fight. Now we have a space program.”
Spencer, who plays Vaughan, and Monáe, who plays Jackson, did not get to meet the women they portrayed because they are no longer living.
Both said they were in awe of their impact.
Vaughan became NASA's first female supervisor and Jackson advocated for equal pay.
“[Jackson] hacked into the NASA system and saw that minorities were being paid far less than their counterparts,” Monáe said.
Jackson convinced the space agency to pay the women more for their work.
“When you think about the fact that racism was the law of the land, segregation kept us separate from our white counterparts,” Spencer said. “It didn’t change their minds that they, what they were able to contribute.”
Modern-day women now have agency that Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson didn’t have, Spencer said.
“It’s what we do with that now that’s important,” Spencer said.
Musician Pharrell Williams, who wrote and produced the movie soundtrack, was also at the space center on Monday.
Williams talked about his space heroes calling NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk modern-day pioneers.
The songwriter joked with the press, asking if the conference was “live” and then throwing up the "Star Trek" Vulcan salute.
Williams said that when he wrote music for the film, he had to acknowledge that the burdens of the time during which the events took place “were much heavier on African-Americans and twice as hard on African-American women.”
“We found ourselves trying to make music that we felt like would resonate with women and would definitely reflect that gallant time that those African-American women lived through and endured,” Williams said.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden called it a dedication to “human computers likes Katherine Johnson and also to the women at NASA who are today continuing their legacy of courage and excellence.”
The space agency has a history of progressive thinking and in its hiring, Spencer said.
“They didn’t have to allow women in positions of power,” she said.
Spencer said she has great respect for astronaut John Glenn, who died last week, for giving women of color a chance when many did not and for NASA for hiring them.
“He made the decision to put his life in the hands of an African-American woman,” Spencer said.
Some of the stereotypes that women, and particularly women of color, faced in the 1960s and 1970s remain today.
Henson said she sat in the back of her math and science classes as a child because “math and science was for boys.” She said she thought, “It wasn't for me.”
Almost a half-century after man walked on the moon, only 14 percent of working engineers are women, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Even fewer are women of color.
“If this story exists, there are thousands of others,” Henson said. “Our work is not done.”