"Hidden figures" history of astronautics and IT

Long ago, even before the advent of computers, humanity still needed to solve complex computational problems. And there was no other option than to gather people, organize them into a team and let them consider this task manually. Such people were called calculators, they calculated navigation problems, trigonometric tables and logarithms, co-material and much more. The calculators, or more precisely the calculators, because in the 20th century most of them were women, provided atomic, rocket and space programs on both sides of the ocean. And now, on the eve of the International Women's Day, I would like to remind you of a curious film showing the forgotten pages of the history of computing and astronautics.

Based on real events

Actors and prototypes

The plot of the film is based on real biographies of three African American women working at NASA.

Katherine Johnson (Katherine Johnson). Born August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Since childhood, proved to be a brilliant mathematician. She entered the top three (and was the only woman among them) of the first African Americans who were accepted into the best state university, but when she got married, she left the first year. Has given birth to three children. She began working as a calculator at the Langley Research Center in 1953. In 1956, her husband died of cancer, married for the second time in 1959. In 1957 she performed calculations for the work "Notes on space technologies," based on lectures of engineers from flight study groups and unmanned aerial vehicles. These engineers became the backbone of the Space Working Group, and Catherine also became part of it. In 1960, she became the first female co-author of a document describing calculations of the orbit of a celestial body, taking into account the landing point (it is now available on the NASA website). Made calculations for the first manned missions of the United States, the flights of the Apollo and the Space Shuttles. She quit NASA in 1986. In 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.

Mary Jackson (Mary Jackson). Born on April 9, 1921. After receiving a bachelor's degree, she worked as a teacher of mathematics, but, having changed several professions, in 1951 she was in the group of calculators in the Western District of NACA . In 1953 she moved to a unit operating with a supersonic wind tunnel. In 1958, became the first African American engineer in NASA. She made a brilliant engineering career, but, resting on the glass ceiling, could not rise higher to manager level, so in 1979 she moved down to the Federal Women's Program of the Langley Center, where she hired and promoted the next generation of female engineers to NASA. She quit in 1985. She was married, had two children. She died on February 11, 2005.

Dorothy Vaughn (Dorothy Vaughan). Born September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1932 she married, gave birth to six children. She worked as a teacher of mathematics. In 1943, two years after the order of 8802 President Roosevelt, who banned racial, ethnic and religious discrimination in the defense sphere, she settled, as she thought, for temporary work in Langley as a calculator, to process data on aerodynamics. She worked in a specially created segregated group of calculators of the Western District, which included only colored employees. In 1949 she became the head of the group, the first African American and one of the few women in this position. When NACA was transformed into NASA in 1958, the segregation of calculation groups was canceled, the new Analysis and Calculations Division was formed without division by skin color. When computers appeared in NASA, it became a programmer on FORTRAN, participated in the Scout rocket program. She quit NASA in 1971, died November 10, 2008.

Materiel and physics

Despite the fact that NASA participated in the creation of the film, alas, the technical side is shown so-so, with rather serious blunders. It is possible to forgive the incorrect display of the flight direction, the cyclogram of the separation and the work of the third stage of the Soviet Vostok carrier rocket, but offensive errors are also visible when showing American technology. The biggest one is the fictional branch of the tail section of the Redstone booster.

Frame from the film

The filmmakers are clearly entangled in the design of rockets, because the tail section with two engines is not separated from Redstone, but from the Atlas PH. Her flight is also in the film, but for some reason they show documentary shots of the second-stage branch of the carrier rocket Titan-2, which brought out the next-generation ships, Gemini.

The importance of determining as accurately as possible the landing area of ​​the Mercury is also unnecessarily exaggerated. In reality, rescue services were deployed over a fairly large area in case of unpleasant surprises, and astronaut Carpenter’s slip four hundred kilometers from the calculated point did not prevent him from finding him after only about an hour.

At the same time, the story with the calculations for the flight of John Glenn is real. Often, the first computers that didn’t hang and break didn’t really trust, and personally Glenn asked Katherine Johnson to manually perform calculations using the same formulas and data. “If she says that everything is in order, I’m ready to fly,” said Glenn. The results of calculations of the computer and the person coincided.

In the scene, signed as Redstone Pilot Tests, other rockets explode. Also, the flight of Glenn did not reduce, he flew off the planned three turns. The phrase “you have a go at least 7 orbits”, really pronounced in reality, means not allowing seven turns to fly, but the fact that the orbit after separation from the rocket is high enough, and there is no need to urgently sit down on the first or second coil to hide into the atmosphere in a random place. Well, and finally, the American Mission Control Center could not physically track the first minutes of Gagarin’s flight in real time, receiving telemetry from a rocket, and the scheme of the mission there is shown for Mercury, but not for Vostok.

A little popular print

Some of the events in the film were compressed and re-dramatized to create a single and coherent picture. In fact, some episodes occurred at another time or were absent in reality.

The film takes place in 1961-1962. There were no segregated units of calculators in reality since 1958, when NACA was transformed into NASA. The Division of Analysis and Calculations, where the heroines worked, was racially integrated.

In general, the time in the film was compressed, and the organizational structure of NASA - simplified. The fictional Al Harrison combined in himself the head of the Space Working Group, Robert Gilruth, and the flight director, Chris Kraft.

The story of the need to run far to use a segregated toilet is distorted and exaggerated. In reality, this problem was not faced by Catherine, but by Mary. Catherine used unmarked toilets for years, until someone paid attention to this. Yes, and after being found unhappy, she ignored the complaint and continued to use the same toilet. In an interview, the real Katherine said that she did not feel the segregation in NASA. “Everyone was busy with research. You had a task, and you did your job. Well, still playing bridge at lunchtime. I knew that the segregation was, but I did not feel it, ”said Catherine.

And the plot move with the dismantling of the “only for whites” tablet with improvised means not only did not occur in reality, but even became an occasion to condemn the film - some critics saw in it a “white savior” pattern, something completely opposite to the picture's spirit.

Mary Jackson did not need to go to court for higher education. In reality, she applied to the mayor’s office for a special permit and received it.

The Merkur flights were operated by the MCC not at Langley, but at Cape Canaveral. The Houston mission center began work only on the Gemini missions.


Personally, I have almost no complaints about the acting, with the only exception. The character of Jim Parsons looks like Sheldon transferred in time, and this somewhat spoils the overall impression. I would like to hope that in future films he will manage to get out of this image.

The actors are well chosen, except that Glenn, in my opinion, looks unsuccessful, but these are trifles.

Across the ocean

In the Soviet memoirs, you can find references to our female calculators who performed the same work. It is curious that Boris Khristoforov in his memoirs “Memoirs of an engineer-physicist” writes that the paycheckers received higher awards than the participants in atomic tests. Georgy Grechko, the future cosmonaut, led the calculators and recalls how, expecting the rocket’s trajectory to launch the first satellite, we had to move from Bradis tables (you could still catch them at school) to more accurate Khrenov tables. Electromechanical calculating machines did not know how to count trigonometric functions, and the fourth sign influenced the result - the rocket began to oscillate, raising its nose, lowering it below the horizon. The calculators forced to do more calculations raised a riot, and the issue was decided at a trade union meeting, at which they were convinced that the calculations on the Bradis tables suitable for military rockets were no longer suitable here. Calculators and calculators are also mentioned in the book “Cosmos begins on Earth” by B.A. Pokrovsky.


Despite some crap and inaccuracies that could have been avoided, the film is recommended for viewing and is valuable in a story about interesting episodes from the history of astronautics, computing technology and the life of American society.

Source: https://habr.com/ru/post/409235/

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