The new movie Hidden Figures follows the path of three unsung heroes who were part of one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit. The three mathematicians, all African-American mothers — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — work at NASA in the early 1960s in Virginia when America was segregated. It was a time when women and minorities had an uphill battle. All three mathematicians faced discrimination at work. These highly ambitious mothers also struggled to find a work-life balance. Glenn, who later served as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, was the first American to orbit the earth.
In the movie, he is depicted as a witty, upbeat and incredibly nice guy who is able to look beyond the segregated society he lived in to show respect for the African-American women at NASA known as “human computers.” They calculated and verified the travel trajectories that took the first Americans to space. Before the launch of his Friendship 7 vessel, even after NASA began using new electronic computers, Glenn personally requested that one of the women recheck the calculations. In the film Glenn says, “Let’s get the girl to check the numbers.” When asked, “Which one?” by a NASA manager Glenn says: “The smart one.” He’s referring to mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 at the age of 97. A building is named for her at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.
As a lowly student at Northwestern’s Medill graduate school of Journalism, I landed an internship as a Washington, D.C. correspondent for WTOL-TV in Toledo, Ohio, during my final semester in 1983. I worked out of the college’s Washington bureau. It was my mission to get an interview with Senator Glenn. Rumors were swirling that he would seek the Democratic nomination for President. I couldn’t believe it when I got the thumbs-up. I remember feeling as anxious as an astronaut during shuttle launch countdown sitting in his waiting room at the Capitol thinking how I would be “over the moon” if I got this interview on my resume tape. But prior to liftoff, the mission was aborted. The students taped each other’s interviews and the two who were supposed to record this one got into a car accident and the camera was smashed to smithereens. I can remember the horror I felt when they gave me the bad news. To my shock, Senator Glenn himself came out to comfort me. He was worried about the students and wanted to make sure they were okay. I remember him telling me that he couldn’t hold this against me saying, “You’ve done nothing wrong.” He rescheduled the interview for the very next day even though he was heavily booked. In the interview, he confirmed that he was considering a run for President. He was an American icon and owed me nothing. Being cynical, one would say that he wanted the media attention for his constituents back home. I don’t think he needed it. Every major media outlet in the country wanted an interview. I felt he simply wanted to give a young woman a break. Only two students from my class had job offers before they graduated. I was one of them. Glenn failed in his 1984 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. I watched later as he became the oldest man to fly in space as a crew member of the Discovery space shuttle at the age of 77. He died this past December at the age of 95. While many remember him for his groundbreaking space missions and work on Capitol Hill, I think of the “nice guy” who launched my resume reel into orbit.