Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women who played a vital role in the early US space programme.  It focuses on three black women who started as human computers, calculating trajectories for satellites and the early Mercury missions at the newly-formed NASA’s Langley Memorial Research Lab in Virginia.

The British Interplanetary Society has worked with 20th Century Fox, Odeon Cinemas, ESA/ESRIN (European Space Agency/European Space research Institure) and ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana – the Italian Space Agency) to put on two very special shows to inspire students in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

At the start, the women are in in a team of human computers, segregated from their white, mostly male, counterparts.  Then the USSR launches its Sputniks and soon afterwards Yuri Gagarin, while the US suffers a number of setbacks that have been well documented in Spaceflight magazine’s ’Flashback’ series.  This ups the pressure on NASA to deliver men into space, and they recognise, gradually at first, that these women can help.

The film follows the development of Katherine Johnson an expert mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan a supervisor and Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer.  Over the course of the film, we see them struggle with racism and sexism, but through their strong personalities and technical skills they gradually win the respect of their colleagues.

It is a very well made film: the script, acting and production are of such quality that it has been nominated for three Oscars.  It blends rocket science with personal stories and a strong message about what people can achieve if they work together.  Despite that, it is a story that has remained unknown for many decades.  Now a wider audience can appreciate the value and achievements of these women, both for the space programme and for humankind.

In the UK, ‘Hidden Figures’ (PG) opened for general release on 17th February 2017.  #HiddenFigures

In Italy, ‘Il Diritto di Contare’ (+13) opens for general release on 8th March 2017. #IlDirittoDiContare

A longer version of this article will appear in an upcoming edition of Spaceflight magazine.

UK: A Special Screening for Secondary School Children

20th Century Fox and Odeon cinemas have long supported the educational potential of film, and  Hidden Figures gave them a great chance to promote STEM subjects in education, with a particular focus on strong female role models.

Hidden Figures Panel (smaller)Odeon provided 24 cinemas for a simultaneous screening on 9th February, with satellite links from the panel discussion at Odeon in Tottenham Court Road, London to the other screens.  The film education charity IntoFilm organised an audience of 2800 secondary school children and their teachers across the venues.

The British Interplanetary Society supported Fox and Energy company EDF to assemble a panel of inspiring women: Maggie Aderin-Pocock – Space scientist and science educator; Helen Keen – comedian, writer and science enthusiast; Carrie Anne Philbin – Director of Education at the Raspberry Pi Foundation; Christine Waata – nuclear engineer at EDF Energy; Daisy Lachat – Mars rover engineer at Airbus DS, and Alice Bunn – Director of Policy at the UK Space Agency.  The panel was hosted by broadcaster Jenni Falconer.

After the applause for the film dies away, Falconer asked the panel about about the film, their experiences and their advice.  The film clearly linked to their own experiences, both struggles and successes, but all agreed that much progress had been made over the years.  The discussion concluded on strong positive note from Maggie Aderin-Pocock: “Whatever your stars are, reach up and grab them.  You’ll be amazed by what you can do.”

Truly an inspiring film and an inspiring panel discussion reinforcing the same messages relevant to today’s high technology economy.  This initiative will encourage many of these children, no matter what their gender or background, to join the next phase of our journey into space.

Italy: A Special Screening for university students

In Italy, 20th Century Fox and Studio QuattroZeroQuattro asked BIS-Italia to help organise a special event in Rome with ESA/ESRIN and ASI for university students to preview the movie and discuss the topics raised.

In just one week, through BIS-Italia’s connections in the academic world and the space industry, the auditorium was full to capacity.  About 200 students and 150 others will be guests at ASI’s cinema-like auditorium for the film and a panel discussion with ASI and ESA/ESRIN experts.

This shows the cultural interest in space exploration, and more generally in science and technology, both among young people and not-so-young ones.  It also demonstrates the ability of BIS-Italia, ESA and ASI to embrace a project together and deliver an event in a very short time-frame compared to the many years of a typical space mission.  It is a great example of collaboration between the BIS and the two major European space institutions and we look forward to updating this article with a report on the event itself.

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