Hidden Figures:Legendary Astronaut and Unsung Hero Mothers Rock Space Race

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.  This powerfully enlightening movie is based on the true stories of all three mathematicians who 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.

Managing Marriage With a Meddling Mother-in-Law is no Slam Dunk

They come in all shapes and sizes.

But they share one thing in common.  A meddling mother-in-law thinks she rules the roost.  If you have an interfering hen-pecker she can be a nuisance.

My mother-in-law was a bit meddlesome. “Your  marriage will never last unless you learn to love basketball,” she’d say trying to explain the game and forcing me to watch it.  My husband is a basketball fanatic.  He was captain of  the number one ranked basketball team in his state his senior year in high school.  My husband loves to joke that when he took me to watch our first Duke basketball game together at the Meadowlands, rain was forecast and I asked if it was an indoor or outdoor game to know whether to bring an umbrella.   Sports was never my thing.  My family is very artsy.  I thought opposites attract. Managing marriage with a meddling mother-in-law is no slam dunk.  You just have to try and give it your best shot.

I was thinking of my mother-in-law today as I packed up the ornaments she left me.  From trying to teach me to cook Southern meals, to arm-twisting me to move down South, she was always a nudge.  She passed a decade ago, but when she was alive I found relief laughing at the TV sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond. In the show a daughter-in-law with my name “Debra”  was always trying to fend off the unwanted advice of her mother-in-law who lived next door.

Like the actress Doris Roberts  who plays comic Ray Romano’s mother Marie on the show,  my mother-in-law was well-meaning but intrusive.  The constant meddling got to a point where I decided I needed marriage counseling.  It was affecting my family.

I resented the fact that my husband never put his foot down.  Research shows that women who feel supported by their spouses in their in-law conflicts have better marriages.  I told the therapist that every time his mother crossed the line and pushed me to a  meltdown I feared I’d release more radioactive steam than the reactor at Chernobyl.  The therapist told me that I couldn’t change the people around me.  He said that I could only change how I reacted to them.   He had some sage advice. He said that “going nuclear” is never the way. “Don’t ever go to bed angry,” he told me, ” just stay up and argue until you win.”