Black Women in NASA, NACA Honored with Congressional Gold Medal

By Micha Green
D.C. Editor
[email protected]

Before there was a book, film and now Congressional Medal, there were four Black women instrumental to NASA and the Space Race to the moon who were “Hidden Figures,” in history.  Hidden no more after the success of Margot Lee Shetterly’s {Hidden Figures} book and critically acclaimed film of the same name, Katherine Johnson, Dr. Christine Darden, and posthumously Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, will officially receive the Congressional Gold Medal.  

Darden, Shetterly and a hundred or so guests from Congress, the Senate, NASA and science field, gathered at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center for the momentous celebration on Dec. 9.

Groundbreaking NASA scientist Dr. Christine Darden holds the Congressional Gold Medal proclamation at the Congressional Gold Medal Celebration: Honoring NASA Women Who Inspired Hidden Figures. (Photo by Micha Green)

“This is wonderful to be recognized for the work that I did- not because I was going after anything like this, but because I wanted to achieve something that would change life in America,” Darden said in an exclusive interview with the AFRO. “So that was the reason that I was working and pushing, but this is a little icing on the cake.”

The Hidden Figures receiving the Congressional Gold Medal took a lot of bipartisan work and collaboration between the House and Senate.  U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) introduced the legislation to award the Black women who contributed to the Space Race.  The bill was passed by Congress and recently signed by President Donald J. Trump. 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program in “Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics,” hosted the Congressional Gold Medal Reception, and was also instrumental in the publishing of Hidden Figures, and other works dedicated to telling STEM related stories.

Shetterly, who began writing Hidden Figures in 2010, said she never could have predicted that her idea would lead all the way to the House and Senate floors, and result in these groundbreaking women receiving a Congressional Gold Medal.

Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly at the Congressional Gold Medal Celebration. (Photo by Micha Green)

“There’s no way you can predict a day like this.  There’s no way to predict if a book even gets published- just that first step was a huge, big deal,” Shetterly said.

Having been honored by the AFRO at the publication’s 125th anniversary gala in 2017, and now working on a book that will highlight another hidden figure- former AFRO publisher Carl Murphy, Shetterly shared how she’s still amazed that her first book is still making waves, over three years after its commercial success and almost a decade since she began writing the work.

“Every time I think that ‘Hidden Figures’ has reached the point where people are going to forget about these women, somebody else says, ‘Okay we’re going to do this next.’  It happened first with the book, then there was a film, and the film was really embraced by many people, and now the Congressional Medal.”

Although Shetterly is still working on other projects, she added that the Hidden Figures recognition is far from over.

“I think there’s going to be another celebration next year when the medals are actually minted because it takes a year to actually design and mint and now they’re already talking about another celebration- the actual presentation of medals celebration-so it’s just great,” she said.

A Hampton, Virginia native, Shetterly added the tremendous sense of pride she has, when seeing these African American women from her hometown finally get their just acknowledgement. 

“It’s wonderful for me to see these women from my hometown get their due, and to also see these women who are known for being smart and hardworking, and in a job that a lot of people think that’s geeky, and they just did it, and they did it so well,” Shetterly said.  “I’ve been thrilled about how broad the reception has been for these women and their work.”

Guests at the celebration also beamed with excitement about the Hidden Figures recent honor.

Senior Software Assurance Engineer at NASA Goddard Space Center Elaine Gunter explained why she came to celebrate the Hidden Figures receiving a Congressional Gold Medal. 

“I came just to honor the women who are here, as well as the author who brought this out.  I work at Goddard Space Flight Center. I feel very honored to work there- best job I ever had.  And I have this job because of the Hidden Figures,” Gunter said. “They opened the doors for me,” she added.

NASA’s Technical Manager in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate Angela Mason Butcher, who thanks the Hidden Figures for paving the way for her career, has an even further connection with the groundbreaking women.

“When I saw that the book was coming out and then the movie, I just started reflecting on the wonderful women that I knew, like Mary Jackson, and also I knew Katherine Johnson and her husband because we were involved in a lot of STEM activities before STEM was even an acronym with the National Technical Association (NTA),” she said. 

“I didn’t know Margot Lee Shetterly at the time, but I knew her father was a retired engineer from NASA… he was part of NTA as well.  And actually her mother edited my thesis for my Master’s. I got my Master’s from George Washington University. So it was just so personal to me. When I learned about everything, it just made me proud. Proud to be a part of NASA, proud of my contributions, and just a little saddened, that their contributions were just recognized, but I’m just happy that they did get recognized,” Butcher added.

Further than just knowing some of the Hidden Figures, Butcher explained that her relationship with Jackson goes even deeper. 

“I went to Hampton University undergrad and I knew [Mary Jackson’s] pastor, and he gave me as a job as a receptionist.  And that was the church that Mary Jackson went to. And so when I ended up getting the job [at NASA], Mary Jackson offered to let me stay with her and her family,” Butcher said.

Butcher was amazed by the humility of the woman who opened her home to her as a young engineer.

“When I lived with Mary Jackson, she was just really humble.  I knew she was brilliant, but I didn’t know she was the first [Black woman] engineer at NASA and so it just goes to show how humble they were,” she said.  “They were good mentors, but they also helped us to be humble as well.”

Even after receiving recognition with Congressional Gold Medal, Dr. Darden also emphasized of fostering the next generation of women in STEM.

 “If they’re interested in STEM, then they need to pursue their interest. And I tell their parents, rather than tell your daughters, ‘Girls don’t do math or girls don’t do this,’ support your daughters, help them to develop all the capabilities that they can in that area, and help them realize their dream in working that area.”

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