“Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go.” Those words were uttered by astronaut John Glenn, circa 1962, in the heat of a space race the US was fast losing, and shortly before he became the first American to orbit Earth. And the ‘girl’? Katherine Johnson – a human ‘computer’, the official title of women who were hired to calculate complex mathematical equations by hand at NASA. She worked as part of the West Area Computers group – African-American ‘computers’ who laboured in a separate location to their white colleagues, and were forced to also use segregated dining and bathroom facilities. But even Katherine – whose calculations helped land Apollo 11 on the moon and safely return the Apollo 13 crew to Earth – said the smartest woman she ever met was the head of that group, the woman who, in 1949, became NASA’s first African-American manager: Dorothy Vaughan.
The accomplishments of these almost-forgotten women – who didn’t even have the right to vote at the time – tell a remarkable story, and one that is now being re-told in a new film, Hidden Figures, released this month. The film traces the impact of Katherine, Mary Jackson, who was the first black female engineer at NASA, and Dorothy, played by Octavia Spencer, who initially thought the script was historical fiction because so few space race films depict womens’ contributions. “She had very much the same mentality as my mother,” says Octavia down the line from the comfort of her bed, as she tries to reset her body clock after recent filming. The sixth of seven children, Octavia’s mother passed away when she was 18.
“No job was too small to provide for her family.” And though Dorothy worked for two years as the acting section head – without its official title or pay rise – she often intervened on behalf of women in the West Computing Group, as well as their white counterparts, who deserved promotions or pay rises. “She spoke up for all of the women – she was responsible for Katherine being [selected]… and getting Mary into the engineering pool. It’s really wonderful how selfless she was,” says Octavia, who believes that the void these stories fell into has held back women in the sciences. “I certainly know that there would not have been such a great decline of women in STEM, in science, technology, engineering and math… in colleges across the country. I think there would have been far more women in roles [in these industries] and these programs.”
Half a century before the current boom of global initiatives to encourage more girls to study computer science and programming, Dorothy pioneered the way – she is now considered one of the first women coders. In 1959, NASA brought in an IBM 7090 – a room-sized computer that could far surpass the human computers’ thousands of calculations a day. Dorothy, a former high school maths teacher, who graduated college at 19, realised ‘the IBM’ could put the computers out of a job, so she taught herself – and the women in her team – the programming language FORTRAN, and forged a path into electronic computing.
“She knew what was coming down the road,” says Octavia, who studied liberal arts. “Once they got that computer working, in order to continue to be viable in the workplace, they would have to be invaluable in the workplace, and the only way to be invaluable is to learn how to program that IBM. I think that we always have to keep an eye to the future because that’s where we’re going, that’s our trajectory; it’s not where we come from, but where we’re going. You need to know both: you need to [understand] history and you need to keep an eye out for the future.” Now, Octavia has started optioning books to bring more stories to the big screen, including one about the African-American entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker, the first woman – of any race – to become a self-made millionaire.
Despite receiving a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Dorothy, Octavia, who won an Academy Award for her role in 2011’s The Help, has also stared down her own challenges in the workplace – namely a debilitating case of stage fright (the reason she minored, instead of majored, in theatre studies). But, having clocked up more than 120 film and television credits, Octavia learnt to lean into her fear, creating rituals to ward off her nerves and arriving hours ahead of schedule to become completely comfortable with a space before filming.
“I go and get dressed and I sit in the location, or I sit on the set, long before we get calls to come down,” she says. “Because if I’m supposed to be working at a place, I need to know where every pencil is, I need to know where the erasers are, I need to know how coffee is made. You have to have the imprint of why you’re there, understand what your purpose is there, and have an ease about working around the space.”
For her role as Dorothy, Octavia, who immerses herself in the time period of any production she’s cast in by listening only to the music of the time and avoiding tasks that are specifically modern, took her preparation one step further when a fan she needed for white noise arrived flat-packed. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m playing a character who knows how to reassemble anything electronic and do anything’,” she laughs. “And it did not go well. I mean, I put it together. I only had a butter knife. I’m the least mechanically inclined person, and the fact that I got that fan together and it looked like a fan, I was so happy. But, by the end of the week, in the middle of the night, I hear this thumping sound – I didn’t put the screw in properly and something had fallen off. Once I had it fixed again something would fall off. It was hysterically funny when I think about it. I’m going to stick to my day job, and it does not involve fixing things.”
Another difficulty Octavia wrestles with each day is her dyslexia. Working in an industry heavily reliant on the written word, the condition has forced her to develop creative solutions, including choosing to no longer read scripts for enjoyment, and have her agent read any prospective script first. “I have severe stage fright. I’m dyslexic. When we would do a half-hour television series, it’s really, really quick – it’s like doing a play in a week – so the words are constantly changing, and you have to read out loud in front of people, and it’s very difficult for me,” says Octavia. “You have to do what frightens you because it only makes you stronger and only makes you better at what you do.
“It still affects me, I get what I call ‘hot storm’ – I just start reading and think, ‘Ugh, what is this, it’s all jumbled.’ So you put it down until you’re at a more peaceful place where you can actually [read] it.” This spirit of perseverance stems from a youthful curiosity that, ironically enough, only crime and mystery books could foster.
“What changed my reading career was my teacher gave me my first mystery novel and said, ‘You won’t know what’s going to be important or what’s going to be a clue’.” Still a big fan of the genre, Octavia wrote her first book, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit, a mystery novel for middle-schoolers, to keep her sane between auditions (she published a follow-up in 2016 but, thanks to writers’ block, a third title in the series is yet to come). The interactive book, published in 2015, follows a 12-year-old heroine with a black belt in tae kwon do, as she and her best friend solve a mystery. To make it as realistic as possible, Octavia enrolled the help of a forensic technician.
“I wanted to take it one step further to actually show them how you do crime-scene investigations at home, like how to lift fingerprints [and] how to make a cast of a footprint, using household stuff. I reached out to a person on the internet, a crime scene investigator and I was put in touch with him by another friend, and he did all of that and loved it.
“I wanted to take it and make it an interactive book for kids that could apply not only interactive and inductive reading, but have an actual [physical] application because I was one of those nerdy kids who in science class loved the end of the chapter where you had the experiments… I’m more of a creative mind but definitely appreciate the analytical mind.”
The comparison to Dorothy almost seems too easy. Yet having immersed herself in the lives of women whose achievements were truly unprecedented, what does Octavia believe is the secret to success?
“I think the road to success is not a solitary journey, it’s one that you take with people because that’s when you learn who you are and how you picture it. It really is about the camaraderie and the shoulders that you stand on. You provide a ladder for each other.”