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Bill Recognizing ‘Hidden Figures’ for Contributions to U.S. during the Space Race Headed to President Trump’s Desk to become Law

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2019

House Science, Space, and Technology Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK), along with Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE.), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) applauded the congressional passage of a bipartisan bill they introduced, along with hundreds of their colleagues, to award Congressional Gold Medals to Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden and to posthumously award Congressional Gold Medals to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. 

The bill would also award a fifth Congressional Gold Medal to honor all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race. The bill commends these women for their contributions to NASA’s success and highlights their broader impact on society; paving the way for women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S. It is awarded to those who have performed an achievement that has had an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized in the recipient’s field for years to come.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act will honor:

  • Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division. 

  • Dorothy Vaughan, who led the West Area Computing unit for nine years, as the first African American supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.

  • Mary Jackson, who petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School in order to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. 

  • Dr. Christine Darden, who became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley. 

The lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden were featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book was adapted into the 2016 film Hidden Figures. 

The bill will also honor the hundreds of other women who contributed to the success of NASA during the Space Race by serving as computers, mathematicians, and engineers.

“During the Space Race, pioneering women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden were working in the background, making critical contributions as they overcame racial and gender barriers,” said House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Lucas. “Their achievements in computing, engineering, programming, and aeronautics are all the more impressive given the challenges they faced. Awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal honors their lives and work and ensures they will continue to inspire Americans for years to come. I’m proud our bill will become law and give these individuals, as well as their female colleagues during the Space Race, the recognition they have long deserved.”

“In the early days of the space program, women and their talents were critically important but often overlooked,” said Congresswoman Johnson, Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. “Women were typically not permitted to serve in any visible positions or recognized publicly for their contributions. Women of color faced the additional daily indignity of racial segregation. In spite of these challenges, these women chose to apply their considerable talents to help achieve what was arguably one of the nation’s crowning technological achievements, landing the first humans on the moon. The success of the NASA space program was due in large part to their brilliance, hard work, and perseverance in the face of adversity.”

“I am proud Congress passed this bipartisan bill to honor Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Dr. Christine Darden and all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race with Congressional Gold Medals,” said Senator Coons. “Women played an integral role at NASA during the Space Race, but for many years their accomplishments remained hidden. With passage of this bill, we are recognizing these extraordinary women and bringing their accomplishments into the light so they can serve as an inspiration for generations of women scientists to come, particularly those of color.” 

“I’m encouraged by the growing support of the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act. This Act will award one of the highest civilian honors given by Congress to Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden—four women who overcame significant hurdles to attain their educational and professional goals, serving as mathematicians, programmers, and engineers at NASA when the agency was emerging from segregation,” said Senator Murkowski. “I hope this bill will encourage young women across the nation to pursue study and careers in STEM.”

“Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden made monumental contributions to science and our nation,” said Senator Harris. “The groundbreaking accomplishments of these four women, and all of the women who contributed to the success of NASA, helped us win the space race but remained in the dark far too long. I am proud our bill to honor these remarkable women has passed Congress. These pioneers remain a beacon for Black women across the country, both young and old.”

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act is endorsed by the Girl Scouts of the USA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Physical Society, Association for Women in Science, National Association for Equal Opportunity, Society of Women Engineers, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund, National Center for Women and Information Technology, Hampton Roads Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Association for Women in Math, American Mathematical Society, National Association of Mathematicians, Mathematical Association of America, National Congress of Black Women, AnitaB.org, American Chemical Society, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Statements of support can be found here

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