In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) hired five women to be their first computer pool at the Langley campus. “The women were meticulous and accurate… and they didn’t have to pay them very much,” NASA’s historian Bill Barry says, explaining the NACA’s decision. In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to ensure the growth of the federal workforce. First he issued Executive Order 8802, which banned “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin” (though it does not include gender). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NACA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
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