Former NASA aerospace engineer Dr. Christine Darden told a packed room at the NSU Student Center that the book and the movie “Hidden Figures” provides lessons that today’s students can learn from. She came to the University, Feb.2, as part of the Black History Month signature events.
The scientist urged the audience of faculty, staff, students, administrators and school children, to perceive themselves in the job that they want to do, just as the women of Hidden Figures — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan — had. Then prepare for that job. Once you get your desired position, you must be vigilant and persistent, Darden noted. “When Dorothy Vaughan noticed that a computer was being brought into NASA, she went to the library and found a book on FORTRAN [programming language]. She said, ‘I need to be ready for what is going to come,’” said Darden, pointing to the number of jobs today in which workers have been displaced by robots or other technology.
Darden, who was mentioned in the book, but was not part of the movie, knew the black women mathematicians, who served as the human computers writing the calculations which launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit. However, she did not work in the segregated West Computer Area at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where the others had. By the time she arrived at NASA in 1967, the facilities had been integrated.
Yet, she too is a “Hidden Figure.” She still had barriers to break. While she started at NASA in the ‘human computer pool,’ Darden — through her perseverance, preparation and persistence — became one of just a few women aerospace engineers. She worked on research to reduce sonic boom — the shock wave produced when aircraft fly above the speed of sound, resulting in an extremely loud boom when it reaches the ground. At the time, only one commercial passenger airline, the Concorde, used supersonic speed; however, it could not fly supersonically in the U.S. and could only use that feature once over the Atlantic Ocean.
In her research, Darden used wind tunnels and modified the shape of aircraft to determine which would reduce the sonic boom’s effect. Because of the sonic boom and other factors, the Concorde, a joint venture between Britain and France, flew from 1973 when it made its first transatlantic flight until 2003. Ultimately, the aircraft became too expensive to fly. But NASA has begun new research that it hopes will re-instate supersonic air travel and reduce the noise. Research, no doubt, built on Darden’s life’s work.
Sociology major Aresia Sanders was elated with Darden. “To see her is kind of like making us feel as if we are a part of history,” she said as she stood in line to get her copy of “Hidden Figures” signed.
The book and the movie have had a profound effect on those who have read it, seen the film or just heard about it. Leonard Wyche, an interdisciplinary studies major, told Darden that “Hidden Figures” has been an inspiration to his grandchildren. “Since going to the movie, three of my grandchildren who did not want to go to college do now.” And at least one of them wants to attend Norfolk State, he added.
For 17-year-old Jelani Williams of Granby High School in Norfolk, the story is powerful and should be shared. “African Americans need to learn about more than just being enslaved.”