We’re living in a new era for women in space, on-screen and off

Katherine Johnson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House on November 24, 2015.
NASA, Bill Ingalls, via Flickr

The critically acclaimed film hidden numbers (2016) have drawn public attention to important aspects of NASA’s history. Based on the book of the same name by Margo Lee Shetterly, the film dramatized the real-life stories of three African American mathematicians – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jack Jr. (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) — who worked at the aeronautical research center that became NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Space Craze: America’s enduring fascination with real and imagined spaceflight

From the 1929 debut of the futuristic Buck Rogers to today’s privatization of spaceflight, Passion for space celebrates America’s endless enthusiasm for space exploration. Author Margaret Weitekamp, ​​curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, writes with warmth and personal experience to guide readers through the extraordinary history of spaceflight while showcasing artifacts from the National Air and Space Museum’s spaceflight collection. Smithsonian.

To buy

They began their careers as human computers, a mathematical equivalent of the secretarial pool used in many research centers at the time. Unlike the young male engineers, however, the female computer scientists were doing their job with no hope of career advancement beyond their current job. At Langley in Hampton, Va., those jobs were also segregated by race. The award-winning film took a few liberties with historical accuracy, but it brought widespread recognition to the remarkable careers of women. Johnson, Jackson and Vaughn all made important real contributions to the space program: Johnson calculated rocket trajectories and orbital trajectories, publishing his technical findings; Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer; and Vaughn, the first black woman to serve as a supervisor at Langley, also helped program the center’s first mechanical computers.

This story was not unknown. After all, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015, before the film and book were released. And NASA announced a few months before the film was released that a new building in Langley would be called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. But the film’s popular reception has greatly increased awareness of their story. Perhaps more importantly, the term “hidden characters” became shorthand for stories that had been forgotten (or previously ignored or dismissed), giving people a way to name those whose work had been largely ignored.

In the depths of the Great Depression, fans of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were able to follow the exploits of their favorite characters in comic books, Sunday comics, comic books and movie serials. Learn more in the new book Enthusiasm for space.

Smithsonian Books

The time seemed right to celebrate the women of NASA. In April 2016, Nathalia Holt published The Rise of the Rocket Girls, telling the story of the women working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since its beginnings. Still at the beginning of 2016, months before hidden numbers came out, Maia Weinstock, an MIT science writer and Lego enthusiast, began designing a set of figurines or “minifigs” featuring notable NASA women.

Weinstock was particularly sensitive to stories of women she thought were underappreciated, such as astronomers or engineers. Weinstock created the minifigures and their miniature scenes using a technique called “kit bashing”: combining or modifying existing pieces from many different Lego sets. She also used Minifigs.me, a company that creates custom minifigures. In the end, her set of prototypes represented five women, including fellow MIT engineer Margaret Hamilton, who developed software for the Apollo lunar guidance system, and Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief of astronomy and the an early proponent of the Hubble Space Telescope. Posed on their small stages, each minifig evoked famous photographs of real women. Mathematician Katherine Johnson was shown working at her desk. Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, stood on either side of a space shuttle orbiter.

Weinstock created the set to enter an ongoing contest on the Lego Ideas website, where it met with popular success. Her entry, titled “Ladies Rock Outer Space,” included photographs and descriptions of her designs. According to the website’s rules, suggestions that receive ten thousand online votes are considered by Lego for production, although adoption is not guaranteed. As she promoted her entry on social media, online articles quickly picked up the story and well-known stars boosted her visibility. It also received some unexpected celebrity endorsements. Musician Pharrell Williams, producer of hidden numbers, tweeted about it, as did Jemison herself. Janelle Monáe put it on her Instagram. Some interviewees expressed a wish that they had had a toy like this, showcasing prominent women, when they were growing up. The Girl Scouts Twitter account tweeted about the potential set. In less than two weeks, Weinstock’s entry reached the required ten thousand votes. Over the next year, the Lego design team crafted the final 231-piece retail set, which was released in November 2017. The three versions included in the final set captured the spirit of creation. from Weinstock with a slightly different execution from the final concepts. The final set did not include Katherine Johnson’s minifigure as she declined to participate.

Popular response to the highly anticipated original Lego set revealed that customers were eager to embrace historical figures that had long been overshadowed. At the Lego store in Manhattan, customers lined up for the kit’s first day of sales. According to CNN.com, in its first twenty-four hours on sale, the Women of NASA Lego playset became the top-selling toy on Amazon. The kit tapped into a contemporary interest in reclaiming the history of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and promoting these fields to young women and girls. The importance of women to spaceflight was seen as important in celebrating past accomplishments and inspiring the next generation.


Mr. Spock’s pointy ears from the original “Star Trek” series have become the most well-known appendages in pop culture history. Learn more in the new book Passion for space.

Smithsonian Books

NASA leadership had its own vested interest in reclaiming women’s contributions to the agency to redefine its future. In 2019, NASA renamed the street outside its headquarters in the nation’s capital “Hidden Figures Way”. In 2020, NASA held a separate ceremony to name the building Mary W. Jackson Headquarters. These public recognitions of black women who supported NASA
early accomplishments were consistent with the stated goals of NASA’s Artemis program.

Artemis, which was announced in late 2017, refocused NASA’s human spaceflight exploration targets. Rather than pursuing, in order, the ambitious triple destinations of Earth (ISS), the Moon, and then Mars, as previously planned, Artemis focused on getting humans back to the Moon. Initially, the goal was to bring a man back and send the first woman to the lunar surface. As reworded, however, the program’s goals became more focused: “to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.” The program’s name, Artemis, after Apollo’s sister, both recalled the heyday of the moon landings and looked forward to the planned inclusion of women. NASA promised that Artemis would be “the largest and most diverse international human space exploration program in history”.

The first all-female spacewalk was in October 2019, when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir performed scheduled work outside of the ISS. NASA cited the event as evidence of greater female representation in all aspects of space and investment in future exploration. As a report on the NASA website reminded readers that Koch and Meir are carrying on “a tradition that dates back to our earliest days”, citing, by name, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson as well as the chief of the astronomy Nancy Grace Roman and Apollo orientation computer software engineer Margaret Hamilton. NASA’s public commitment to include the first woman and first person of color in the next human moon landing will require supporting a diverse astronaut corps in ways large and small.

. we live a new era for the women in space the screen off power Voices Smithsonians

. living era women space onscreen

PREV Poet John Donne’s biography wins UK non-fiction book award
NEXT Wheel Of Time S2 moiraine change avoids a big Game of Thrones problem