NASA’s “Hidden Figures” heroines will receive Congressional Gold Medals, according to a White House announcement. The brilliant African American female foursome made game-changing contributions to the agency during the Space Race.
President Donald Trump signed the “Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act” into law on November 8. A fifth medal will recognize “all of the women who contributed to the success” of NASA’s quest to get to the moon.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) was one of the people who introduced the bipartisan bill. She praised the pioneering foursome.
Today, the #HiddenFigures Congressional Gold Medal Act was signed into law. Congressional gold medals will go to Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden (and Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson posthumously). Celebrate the women who paved the way at @NASA: https://t.co/5FofRHHUwp pic.twitter.com/qCCYTs2eGo
‘Hidden Figures’ Get High Honor
Mathematician Katherine Johnson and engineer Dr. Christine Darden will receive the high honors. Likewise, engineer Mary Jackson and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan will earn posthumous awards.
According to the newly-signed bill, the fifth medal recognizes hundreds of women who worked as “Computers, mathematicians, and engineers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration between the 1930s and the 1970s.”
The honor is the highest civilian award in the United States. It is awarded to “Those who have performed an achievement that has had an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized in the recipient’s field for years to come.”
Only five other individuals working in space exploration have ever received the award.
Dr. Robert H. Goddard earned a posthumous medal in 1959 for his pioneering efforts in rocket development. Astronaut John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth, and the legendary Apollo 11 moon landing crew of Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins all received the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.
Notably, the “Hidden Figures” are the first females in space exploration to earn the remarkable distinction.
“Nothing could be more gratifying than to see these women—quiet heroes from my hometown—recognized for their service to our country,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” in a statement supporting the act.
“With their commitment to progress through science and an unyielding belief in equality, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dr. Christine Darden are role models to us all,” Shetterly added.
Shetterly’s book was adapted into the 2016 Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated film of the same name.
Historic Space Program Contributions
Often called “human computers,” the talented, tenacious women worked in various roles at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. As unsung heroes, they made pivotal contributions to the American space program. They also broke ground for women, especially women of color, in STEM-related careers.
“The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long,” said Harris in a press release.
Katherine Johnson notably calculated trajectories for multiple space missions, including Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 missions. She was also the first female at NASA to author a report from the Flight Research Division. Currently, she’s 101 years old.
Mary Jackson served as NASA’s first African American female engineer. Later, she fought for future advancements of NASA female engineers, scientists, and mathematicians as the Federal Women’s Program Manager at Langley. She died in 2005 at age 83.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan led NACA’s (later NASA) West Area Computing Unit for nine years as the agency’s first African American supervisor. At the time, the team of black women was segregated from their white co-workers. Vaughan passed away in 2008 at age 98.
Finally, Dr. Christine Darden began her engineering career at NASA 16 years after Jackson. Throughout the course of her journey, she helped revolutionize aeronautic design and wrote over 50 articles on the subject. Furthermore, Darden became the first African American individual of any gender to earn a Senior Executive Service promotion at Langley. She’s 77 years old.
Last June, NASA named a street in front of its Washington, D.C. headquarters “Hidden Figures Way” to honor the women.
A Bright Female Future in Space
Thanks to the bold work of these female heroes, women in NASA are reaching new heights. For example, today, women make up 34 percent of active astronauts at the space agency. Meanwhile, International Space Station astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir recently performed the first all-female spacewalk.
Over the next couple of months, Koch is aiming to set a record by logging 328 days of living in space aboard the ISS. Finally, NASA aims to land the first-ever woman on the moon via the Artemis program.