Hidden Figures and Our Hidden History Exhibit

By Crystal Harden, Director of Programs and Strategic Initiatives, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

As far as not being equal was concerned, she said, “I didn’t have time for that. My dad taught us you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.”
—Katherine Johnson, “Katherine Johnson, the NASA Mathematician Who Advanced Human Rights with a Slide Rule and Pencil,” Vanity Fair, August 23, 2016, by Charles Bolden

When I read the article and this particular quote by the amazingly gifted Katherine Johnson, I immediately felt all kinds of emotions because I had heard that exact thing from my grandparents and parents while growing up in rural Wilson County, North Carolina. As a result, I have never doubted my abilities to achieve academically, and I developed a lifelong passion for education. Others may not have grown up hearing such words of encouragement, but now this book and this movie give them that opportunity.

When I first heard about a new movie starring Taraji P. Henson, called Hidden Figures, I was intrigued. I had to find out more details. Once I understood that the movie was based on a book about women computers, particularly African American women who worked for NASA, I wanted to know more and understand why I did not know this history. As I began to read about the author, Margot Shetterly, I learned about the connection between astronauts (all of whom received celestial navigation training at Morehead Planetarium) and Katherine Johnson. I also viewed the online talks and lectures of Margot Shetterly as she described the time period of the story, including the important work of Katherine Johnson and other women.

On a leap of faith, I emailed Ms. Shetterly and explained the history of Morehead Planetarium and its role in training NASA astronauts between 1959 and 1975. I was hopeful and persistent. It paid off! She replied with an intense interest in coming to Morehead to share the story of Hidden Figures. I can’t explain my excitement except to say, “over the moon.” The Morehead community and I cannot wait to hear what Ms. Shetterly experienced growing up in the Hampton, Virginia, area near Langley Air Force Base, as well as all of her research on the women who pioneered space trajectory calculations.

My colleagues at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center felt so strongly about telling this story to all our visitors that we designed an accompanying photo exhibit, Hidden History of Firsts in Flight. This new exhibit will highlight the first women in aviation and space flight, such as Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart, and Mae Jemison, along with the first human computers, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and North Carolina native Christine Darden.

The impact of these women stretches far beyond the missions and projects on which they worked. Because of them, young girls today can be empowered to write code and develop computer games.

We hope this story will open up new passions and dreams for more girls and young women to see themselves in the engineering and technology realms of research, development, exploration, and innovative design. Our goal and unwavering hope is that children, especially young girls and young women, believe that they are as good as anybody, just like Katherine Johnson did. We know that if they believe then they can and will achieve their highest potential.