Hidden Figures was one of the best movies of 2016. It awakened public attention to the deeds of the “Colored Computers,” the African-American women who served their country and science as unsung heroines. The film, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, was about one of the greatest achievements in human history to that point: the NASA launch of John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world.
One of the women in the group depicted (though not appearing as a character in the film herself) was mathematician Dr. Gladys West, and she has just been inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
The Air Force Space Command vice commander, Lt. Gen/ David Thompson, presented Dr. West with the Air Force Space and Missiles Pioneers Award for her years of work and her many contributions to the space program. Like Katherine Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, Dr. West was hired as a mathematician before elecronic calculations directed the movements of the space program.
Dr. West studied Pluto’s orbit. She programmed an IBM “Stretch” computer to deliver increasingly refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, a geoid, optimized for what ultimately became the global Positioning System (GPS) orbit.
The D.C. Council recently voted to rename the street outside NASA headquarters Hidden Figures Way.
The women celebrated in the movie Hidden Figures are finally getting the credit they deserve. In the 1960s, the astronauts were national heroes. Only now, in the early 21st century, are the engineers and mathematicians who made their flights possible, getting the recognition they deserve. Long before we had Shuri, Wakanda’s STEM princess, the “Colored Computers” were proving that intelligence and talent are stronger than racism and sexism.
When Gladys West was hired by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in 1956, she was only the second African-American woman to work there. She was born Gladys Mae Brown in 1930. She studied mathematics at Virginia State University in Ettrick, VA. In 1957 she married Ira West, also a mathematician. She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years, not retiring until 1986. She earned her Ph. D. through a distance learning program with Virginia Tech in 2018. She and her husband live in Virginia.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as short stories in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, “Supernatural Colorado”, “Barbarian Crowns”, “Cat Tails””Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.