Another Honor for Our ‘Hidden Figures’: Congressional Gold Medals Given to the Black Women Behind the Space Race

(Clockwise from left) Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Katharine Johnson at the 2017 Academy Awards.
(Clockwise from left) Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Katharine Johnson at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Photo: Matt Sayles (Invision/AP)

America’s “Hidden Figures”—the black women behind NASA’s success in the “Space Race,” continue to be celebrated 50 years after their calculations helped man walk on the moon.


Thanks to the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, and engineers Mary Jackson and Christine Darden are being awarded Congressional Gold Medals, the highest civilian award in the United States. The bipartisan bill (pdf), introduced by Senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), among others, was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Friday.

As reported by CNN:

The women, who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, were so-called “human computers” who did the complex calculations that made space travel possible.

They played pivotal roles in World War II aircraft testing, supersonic flight research, and sending the Voyager probes to explore the solar system. They also helped land the first man on the moon in 1969.

A fifth gold medal was granted in honor of all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race.

The bill chronicles the recruitment of black women as “computers” and the segregated environments they initially entered (and helped change) at NASA. As reported by the Hill, it also rightly states that the STEM icons “exemplify the experiences of hundreds of women who worked as computers, mathematicians, and engineers,” whose “handmade calculations played an integral role in aircraft testing during World War II, supersonic flight research, sending the Voyager probes to explore the solar system and the United States landing the first man on the lunar surface.”

The 2016 publication of Margot Lee Shetterly’s bestselling book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, along with the Academy Award-nominated 2017 film of the same name, brought the contributions of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson to overdue public acclaim. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015; in 2017, a building at NASA was named in her honor. In June of this year, a street in front of NASA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters was renamed “Hidden Figures Way.”

“Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden made monumental contributions to science and our nation,” said Harris in a press release. “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. I am proud our bill to honor these remarkable women has passed Congress. These pioneers remain a beacon for Black women across the country, both young and old.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?