I don’t do a lot of movie reviews, however, I hope you’ll go see the blockbuster movie, Hidden Figures. One of the main characters is played by Alabama’s own Octavia Spencer. It is the story of three of the human computers and unsung heroines of NASA’s Space Program. And while it is not set in Alabama, Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was a big part of America’s Space story. Hidden Figures is one of those gaps in history, a hidden space-filled in now on the big screen with a charming cast and a disarming story every one should see at least once. I feel blessed to have known a few hidden figures who worked for NASA in the early days; one close friend’s father worked toward sending chimps up in the fledgling project and more- and I knew a man who loved to tell the story of being on the team who designed the…uhmm, well the way the astronauts relieved themselves on long flights! I’ve been told since childhood -as the airplane was landing in Huntsville, passenger and brilliant scientist Werner Von Braun remarked, ‘It looks like we’re landing on the moon’. The flat red clay soil was dotted with cotton farms and not much else up at the neck and shoulders of North Alabama. Now, the largest concentration of engineers in the entire United States live in and around Huntsville. I wonder what Dr. Von Braun would think as a Saturn V Rocket pierces the blue sky marking the Space Center and home to America’s Space Camp for aspiring children, along with Redstone Arsenal, NASA, Space X, the University of Alabama at Huntsville and a multitude of engineering, aerospace, technology and scientific communities dot the landscape that he once thought looked like the moon. It’s one of those Hidden Spaces we call home. Down in the Southeastern hip of Alabama is another Hidden Space- called Tuskegee University. The University, once called the Tuskegee Negro Normal School or Institute was founded on July 4, 1881 in a one room shanty. It’s first teacher was the pre-eminent Booker T. Washington, whose intelligence and fundraising abilities brought Tuskegee to the attention of wealthy industrialists such as Henry Ford, who made regular endowments. It could also be argued that one of America’s favorite foods originated through Tuskegee’s scientific and agricultural studies. George Washington Carver worked at the Institute with peanuts as a crop rotation to replenish soil stripped of nutrients and the result was Peanut Butter! You may have heard that singer Lionel Ritchie’s parents were in the professional community at Tuskegee and you have surely heard of the famous World War II Tuskegee Airmen, who received their flight training there. What you might not know is that Tuskegee is the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the United States to have an Aerospace Engineering Program. It was my honor to stay at Tuskegee for a 3 day conference right on this amazing campus- to me, it is one of those hidden spaces I had never experienced firsthand. Tuskegee University and Huntsville’s Space Center are places I hope anyone who visits Alabama would tour. The science for the space program began before I was born, but national awareness of the Russian designed Outer Space Surveillance Satellite known as Sputnik was very much a part of my early years. While we may have sat outside at night watching for Sputnik in lawn chairs, the truth is Americans were afraid. With World War II just behind us, the atom bomb had become part of the nervous system of the entire world, bomb shelters- air raid drills, getting under our desks at school, horns blaring occasionally and men wearing hard hats going off to Civil Defense Meetings kept us in a state of fear. Society was changing-the Missile Crisis in Cuba so close to our southern border states, racial tensions were running high, whole communities were grappling with fear and change, especially in my grammar school years. The shoe banging dictator of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev threatened America and were broadcast on Huntley/Brinkley’s scary news nightly. A young President Kennedy had announced the improbable dream of sending a man to the moon.
I brought my own history as the backdrop to the Hidden Figures’ story, which opens in 1961. It is a story that made me smile, squirm in discomfort and brought the sting of tears to my eyes more than once. This movie brought me back to a childhood fraught with fear– when national leaders were assassinated, when the whole country seemed to be going mad and when unbeknownst to me, human computers were exchanged for whole walls of metal and wire computers designed by brilliant engineers, some who worked less than 2 hours from where I sat at school desk in Birmingham, Alabama. The summer before I entered the University of Alabama, with the aid of so many hidden figures, an American Astronaut walked on the moon! Those of us who grew up in Alabama were deeply affected by this achievement. The story is told by a young man who had a summer job selling Black History books during this time frame- walked through a neighborhood where a young mother sat on her porch watching her young son play-he asked ‘What’s this little fella’s name?’ The reply- ‘His name is Lunar Module’. I suppose Lunar is in his 50’s by now…a living testimonial to the value of the NASA Space Program. Hidden Figures has been added to the American History Books, a technicolor testimonial of the immeasurable value of three brilliant mathematicians, who also happened to be astounding women of color, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Imagine, these hidden figures helped put John Glenn into orbit!
Love y’all, Camellia
*photographs were taken by me of the Hidden Figures posters. Hidden Figures 2017 Screen Actors Guild Award Winning Movie by Twentieth Century Fox based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly for more information on NASA visit: www.nasa.gov and for more information on Tuskegee University visit www.tuskegee.edu