#HiddenFigures = Progress vs Bigotry

Hidden Figures, a movie based on Margot Lee Shetterly's novel about the Black women who helped send the first American into space, is essentially about a group of phenomenal women who worked harder and longer than their counterparts. Facing the intersection of racism and misogyny was a significant barrier to their ability to contribute to the best of their ability. But still, they rise.

I'm a sucker for movies about space, but I was also worried.  It's common for a feel good inspirational movie, in an attempt to show individual merit as overcoming all, to gloss over the difficulties of life in a specific era.  I hoped that the issues involved with race and gender were not minimized.  In fact, I hoped that progress and bigotry were properly shown as antagonists toward each other.  All progress, including science, has been hampered by bigotry.

I'm pleased to say that my worries went completely out the window.  Hidden Figures did a phenomenal job showing how the complexity of the science involved was further magnified by the discrimination of the early 60s.  

Katherine Johnson is a legend in NASA circles. One of her most important contributions to science was the main story arc in the film. She helped calculate the trajectories needed for the first Americans in space, the Mercury Seven, to launch and return successfully.  Bigotry almost prevented this early on - her neighborhood of Greenbrier County didn't school Black children past 8th grade. Katherine's parents had to rely on financial help from her teachers (most likely poor themselves, but saw promise in Katherine)  to send her to school in Katherine's parents the money to send her off to West Virginia.  After her education success, she had to break down another barrier by being the first African American female at the West Virginia University graduate school.  This was only made possible by a recent Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, which forced states to provide equivalent education to African Americans.

Johnson was portrayed as a proud widow who would not be talked down to or diminished. She knew her own value and she consistently pushed to have it recognized, whether it meant putting her name as co-author on a paper featuring her work or having a tense conversation with her boss about being invited to government briefings. She openly discussed the confusion over why she should have use a colored coffee pot, or why she should have to run across the NASA campus just to use the bathroom. Johnson also didn't need a man to define her.  She got with her husband, Jim Johnson, on her own terms. 

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

While the film was focused around Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were also featured as amazing women who had to fight against bigotry every step of the way. Jackson was a more than capable mathematician that was refused an engineering position because NASA changed the requirements at the last minute, likely because they saw a Black woman applying for the position. Jackson had to go as far as to get court order to take the necessary classes at a white, male school in order to advance to become NASA's first Black female engineer. I'll never forget the judge's dry tone when speaking about how "segregation is the law of the state, no matter what the federal government says". Jackson essentially had to appeal to the judge's ego to get the court order, which felt dirty and sad, even though it was necessary and pragmatic. It just saddens me to see what my people needed to go through just to be given a CHANCE at being great.

Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan

Vaughan was a trailblazer in her own right. She managed the Black women "computers" who did the manual calculations for NASA, a group which initially included Jackson and Johnson. She was repeatedly refused a supervisor rank, even though she was doing the work of a supervisor. Vaughan saw the incoming automation of the computer task via IBM as an opportunity.  She studied the brand new Fortran programming language, and proved herself to be much more capable at programming the IBM than the white men tasked to the machine.  Her mastery of the language enabled her to teach her entire computing group. She then led these woman to become IBM programmers, giving them job security.  She eventually became NASA's first Black supervisor.

The only questionable part of the movie was when Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group, showed how "good" NASA was by allowing the Black women to use the bathroom in the main building (how quaint!) after Johnson confronted him about having to run through all kinds of weather just to get to a colored restroom. Since Harrison was the face of politics in the movie, it seemed like an attempt to show the bigotry that Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn felt to be that of only a few bad apples (like Johnson's rival Paul Stafford) instead of being systematically embedded into all fabric of life. A lesser movie would have focused only on the positives after this moment, so viewers can feel good about this "vindication" of merit over bigotry.  Hidden Figures avoids this trope and does a great job of staying on track and showing the struggle of progress vs bigotry up until the very end.  That struggle continues today.

Bad ass Black women. Bad ass science. GO SEE THIS MOVIE! And check out NASA's site dedicated to Hidden Figures as well as current employees deemed Modern Figures.

Sally Ride Rocks

If you visit Google today, the awesome woman appearing on the Google Doodle is none other than the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

Check out a Google "Behind the Doodle" video, which mentions other cool facts about Sally, such as the fact that she was a competitive college tennis player!

Animator friend of the team Nate Swinehart, and doodler Olivia Huynh team up to give you an inside look at the doodle process for Sally Ride.

Also, make sure to check out Janelle Monae's homage to Sally.

Text becomes clearer when watched in HD. Track No. 17 of The Electric Lady Song: Sally Ride Artist: Janelle Monáe All Rights Are to the Original Owner. I do not own this song. Follow Janelle Monae on Twitter @JanelleMonae

Leonard Nimoy Influenced Us All

As Spock, Leonard Nimoy played a pivotal role on the original Star Trek series and movies. Star Trek painted a picture of diversity - different races, cultures, and species working together to make things right in the universe.  It served as a great example of the power of science fiction, especially as a young African American geek that struggled to see diversity in other forms of media that I love. 

Sci-fi author Cerece Rennie Murphy had a great point about the power of sci=fi on the latest Black Girl Nerds podcast:

 "It's all about what it means to truly be human, or to truly be a part of a community. What it means to stand alone and stand together. It's all this stuff that we are grappling with - cut straight to the chase. There may be aliens and space chases, but that's all window dressing. Science fiction is all about who you are, discovering you are, finding a way to be who you are in a world that's telling you to be something else.

That's something that we can all identify with. It can be hard to truly find yourself .Nimoy's characters always excels at displaying that struggle, whether as Spock or William Bell.

Even modern astronauts are influenced by this, especially given the international cooperation required in projects such as the International Space Station.

NASA Astronaut Mike Fincke and ESA European Space Agency Astronaut Luca Parmitano reflect on the inspiration that actor Leonard Nimoy's character Mr. Spock in the television series Star Trek had on scientists, engineers, space explorers and fans around the globe. For a high-resolution version: https://archive.org/details/150227LeonardNiimoy720p

Check out some other great images shared on Twitter to celebrate the passing of Leonard Nimoy.

Apollo 14 & The Future of Astronaut Diversity

Image Credit: NASA.  In this photo, Alan Shepard stands by the Modular Equipment Transporter (MET)

Image Credit: NASA. In this photo, Alan Shepard stands by the Modular Equipment Transporter (MET)

44 years ago, the Apollo 14 mission landed on the surface of the moon. Captain Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr, Major Stuart Allen Roosa, and Commander Edgar Dean Mitchell helped reestablish confidence in our space program after the prior mission, Apollo 13, suffered an explosion on board and had to return to Earth.

This group of brave astronauts, like most from the early NASA days, were white men.  As our astronaut pool becomes more diverse, there is more of a chance for space missions to truly reflect the diversity of our population.

Image Credit: NASA.  Pictured clockwise, starting from top L: Mae Jemison, Jeanette Epps, Yvonnne Cagle, Stephanie Wilson, and Joan Higginbotham.

Image Credit: NASA.  Pictured clockwise, starting from top L: Mae Jemison, Jeanette Epps, Yvonnne Cagle, Stephanie Wilson, and Joan Higginbotham.

I found a great profile of these women featured at a few sites - check them out! Some excerpts

  • Mae Jemison (retired) - served as a science mission specialist during her historic flight to become the first Black woman in space in 1992 (yes, almost 30 years after we started sending people in space).
  • Jeanette J. Epps, Ph.D. has experience as a technical intelligence officer in the CIA
  • Yvonne Cagle, M.D. has served as a flight surgeon and has helped to establish astronaut medical standards and procedures 
  • Stephanie D. Wilson served a the robotic "Canada" arm  operator, flight engineer, and space walking support for three different space shuttle missions
  • Joan Higginbotham (retired) - worked on the shuttle payload bay reconfiguration for all shuttle missions and conducted electrical compatibility tests for all payloads flown aboard the shuttle.

Imagine looking at a NASA photo in the future with these women walking on the surface of another planet or moon. It will happen, and it will be as inspirational as seeing an African American US president.  Diversity matters - let's make it happen!

3D Africa Helps to Diversify STEM

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/3d-africa/x/9504175 Script by Dianna Bai http://diannabai.wordpress.com Music by Travis Geer https://soundcloud.com/travis-geer

Right now, you can drop a few thousand dollars on a 3D printer and start making your own plastic trinkets. We've covered these awesome machines at various places such as the Consumer Electronics Show, your favorite library, and the homes of charitable folk. Wouldn't it be awesome if 3D printers were available to a wider audience?

3D Africa is a project of Nigeria's Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF). The aim of the project is to help give young girls the skills and confidence to succeed in STEM, as well as encourage their entrepreneurial spirit. CEO Njideka Harry told Techcrunch that "There are cultural biases that hold that science is the domain of males and that it is not important for girls’ future lives and that girls are not as capable as boys when it comes to science learning.”

Africa has been exploited throughout its history, and the current generation still bears the brunt of history.  There are children, especially young girls, who are not properly prepared for careers to take them to the next level. According to Ideas Lab:

"Just as personal computers and the Internet empowered individuals and organizations to create new types of information technology-driven jobs, so will 3D fabrication technologies change the way African entrepreneurs do business by allowing anyone to make (almost) anything. Africa’s economies are not industrial-based, but rely instead on the exploitation and export of the continent’s abundant natural resources. For example, the trade relationship between Africa and China, under which Africa exports raw minerals and imports manufactured goods, is estimated at about $166 billion. 3D printing technologies will help African citizens generate income independent of these kinds of relationships."

From the Indiegogo site, your donation will go towards the following:

  • Equipment costs (3D printers, scanners, classroom projectors)
  • Software, design tools & art supplies
  • Transportation subsidies for students and teachers 
  • Digital cameras
  • Key personnel costs  
  • Family/outreach days

Donate today!