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Roadway in front of NASA Headquarters renamed for 'Hidden Figures'

June 12, 2019

— The history of NASA's early female mathematicians is a little less "hidden" today with the dedication of a new street sign pointing to the role of all women in the United States' space program.

NASA officials joined members of Congress and local politicians in Washington, DC on Wednesday (June 12) to unveil the new ceremonial marker designating the stretch of E Street running in front of NASA's Headquarters building as "Hidden Figures Way." The new name honors Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

"These were the three 'hidden figures' in a very prominent book that became a magnificent movie that started a movement that brought all of us here today," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the dedication ceremony. "But they are a small piece of the overall cadre of professionals that helped us not just get into orbit, but also get to the moon — the people of NASA who are now known as the 'Hidden Figures.'"

"Here we are, 50 years after the landing of the Apollo 11 moon lander, celebrating those figures that at the time were not celebrated. Now it is time to celebrate them in a major way," said Bridenstine.

As first detailed by author Margot Shetterly in her 2016 book, "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race," Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were among the women who first went to work as "human computers" for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and then transitioned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, when it was founded in 1958.

Johnson, who is now 100 years old, calculated trajectories for NASA's early human spaceflights, including the suborbital launch of the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard on his 1961 Mercury mission, and the first flight of a U.S. astronaut into Earth orbit, John Glenn, in 1962. Working with NASA's Space Task Group, Johnson became the first woman in the agency's flight research division to receive credit as an author of a research report.

Vaughan led the West Area Computing unit at what is today Langley Research Center in Virginia, becoming the first African American supervisor at NACA. She later became a leading computer programmer as a part of NASA's analysis and computation division. Vaughan died in 2008 at the age of 98.

Jackson was the first black woman engineer at NASA. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA's female mathematicians, engineers and scientists as Langley's Federal Women's Program manager. She died in 2005 at the age of 83.

Members of all three women's families, as well as Christine Darden, who became a NASA engineer 16 years after Jackson and who was the first African American (of any gender) to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley, were in attendance for the street naming ceremony on Wednesday.

"'Hidden Figures' is not about the end of the story, but it is about the beginning," said Shetterly. "It is about how human computers, these female mathematicians, were doing the heavy lifting in aeronautical research and many, many other fields long before those chunks of electronic circuitry became the defining feature of our modern life and work."

The "Hidden Figures Way" dedication followed efforts on both the local and federal level to name the block on E Street SW to honor the women. The Council of the District of Columbia unanimously approved legislation to that effect in December.

"We see the names of streets are often an opportunity to be able to celebrate something in our history," said Phil Mendelson, DC Council chairman. "Part of this is not just the importance of the hidden figures, the human computers, and what they did to help us in our country's mission to get to the moon, but the history here is also about racism in this country."

"I think one of the reasons that the movie was so impactful is because it is not just an interesting story, it is not just a story of individuals, but it also acknowledges the racism that has been in our country and how we still struggle to deal with that and overcome that," said Mendelson.

The Council worked with members of the U.S. Senate, including Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who first sponsored a bill to rename the street.

"A street sign is a piece of metal that is under the wind, sun, the rain [and] the snow, but a street sign is lot more than that," said Cruz. "For years and then decades and then centuries, when little girls and boys come to see NASA, they are going to look up and see that sign and they are going to say, 'Hidden Figures? What is that? What does that mean?'"

"And that in turn is going to prompt a story. A story about women who helped take mankind to the moon, who helped conquer the greatest challenges of an era," said Cruz. "This [street sign] is a monument that you can do anything."

 


NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (at left), Senator Ted Cruz (second from left), DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson and "Hidden Figures" author Margot Lee Shetterly unveil the "Hidden Figures Way" street sign at a dedication ceremony held outside of NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)




A D.C. Department of Transportation employee removes a paper cover from the "Hidden Figures Way" street sign at the corner of 3rd and E Street SW on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 outside of NASA's Headquarters in Washington, DC. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)




NASA's "Hidden Figures" — manager Dorothy Vaughan (at left), mathematician Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson — have been honored with the naming of "Hidden Figures Way" in front of NASA's Headquarters building in Washington, DC. (NASA)



NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (at left), Senator Ted Cruz (second from left), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book "Hidden Figures," unveil the "Hidden Figures Way" street sign at a dedication ceremony on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 outside of NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

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