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‘Hidden Figures’ to Receive Congressional Gold Medals

November 11, 2019by Tamara Dietrich
The Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial from Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Four historic “hidden figures” from NASA Langley Research Center will receive Congressional Gold Medals for their pioneering work during the space race and beyond.

A bipartisan bill recognizing Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson for their groundbreaking exploits as among the first black mathematicians and aerospace engineers at NASA was signed into law Friday by President Trump.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act was cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

“We are thrilled that these four trailblazers are being recognized with this honor,” the senators said in a statement. “Their engineering and calculations were essential to our nation’s success in the space race, but for too long they didn’t receive the acknowledgment they deserve.”

The women gained national attention in the 2016 book “Hidden Figures” and the namesake movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Johnson turned 101 in August, and Darden is 77. Vaughan and Jackson will be awarded their medals posthumously.

Johnson is perhaps best known for calculating trajectories for astronauts Alan Shepard in the first U.S. manned spaceflight, John Glenn in his orbit around the Earth and Neil Armstrong’s mission to the moon.

Vaughan was the first black supervisor at the NACA, the forerunner of NASA, and led the West Area Computing unit for nine years. She later became an expert computer programmer in FORTRAN.

Jackson battled segregation in education to become the first female black engineer at NASA. She went on to advocate for women mathematicians, engineers and scientists as manager of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program.

Darden became a NASA engineer 16 years after Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design and wrote dozens of articles on the subject. She became the first African-American promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley.

Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the country’s highest civilian award, given for exceptional achievement in American history and culture. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

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©2019 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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