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The 'Hidden Figures' at NASA Glenn in Cleveland

Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 24, 2017

The film “Hidden Figures,” based on the book by Margo Lee Shetterly, tells the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were among the African-American women working at NASA as “human computers,” mathematicians who were critical to the John Glenn Friendship 7 mission in 1962.

In 1955, before NASA was even NASA, Annie Easley was one of the first African-American mathematicians working in Cleveland at NACA – the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She started as a “computer” here, went on to get her degree in mathematics, and ultimately worked on the Centaur technology to boost rockets into space. Annie’s studies into alternative energy contributed to the development of the batteries used in hybrid vehicles today.

Annie’s mom always told her she could do anything she wanted as long as she worked at it.  For minority women at NASA in Cleveland today, those early messages mattered too. Mary Lobo – Space Simulation Facility Manager at NASA Glenn - said, “My desire was to be a cartoonist, an artist or photographer. It was my mother who said you will be a doctor, a lawyer or engineer. And because I was good at math and science, engineering was the field I drove toward.”

Aerospace engineer Lizalyn Smith grew up in Detroit, where pursuing a career in a largely white man’s world didn’t seem possible. But in fifth grade, a math teacher pulled her aside to point out she had the highest score in the whole school on a math test. That conversation turned her toward the career she has today, testing components for the Orion mission to Mars.

Rochelle May is the software lead for the Flow Boiling and Condensation Experiment, set to fly on the International Space Station in 2020. She tells students she’s “studying bubbles in space.”  Rochelle started at NASA Glenn when she was just 16 years old, after a guidance counselor at Bedford High School said “hey, you’re good in math and science, apply for this internship at NASA!”

All of them related to the persistence of the women in “Hidden Figures.” While not facing the same segregationist policies and denial of equal opportunity, they all have their own stories about the extra obstacles minority women have to overcome. Mary Lobo said she’s always had to battle lowered expectations, some of it because of her petite size. “Add on top of being a small person, now I’m the only black female in most of the meetings,” she said. “Sometimes I have a little hesitation, sometimes self-doubt, because I’m the only one. But I shake it off.”

Lizalyn Smith said for her, it’s important for her to show other young girls that opportunities exist to go into STEM fields, a purpose echoed by Mary Lobo. “Already with the movie, and with the dialogue that’s been going on for several years, I know the discussion about getting more black women and girls in STEM is at the forefront. I want to see more people who look like me in the places I am.”

NASA Glenn’s workforce of approximately 3300 is divided almost evenly between outside contractors and civil servants. Of the 1600 civil employees, 249 are women in STEM related jobs – 64 of those are minority women. Progress is a long road.

Whatever their individual roles at NASA Glenn, the women all recognize they are connected to the past and the future through the mission of exploring space. Lobo said, “We’re a small piece in a larger puzzle, making possible NASA’s fantastic missions planned for the future.

View some photos of Lizalyn Smith, Annie Easley and Rochelle May below: