By Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson
30th Congressional District of Texas in the US House of Representatives
Women have performed historically-critical roles in America’s efforts to become the world’s dominant space exploration nation. Now, the seminal contributions of four particular women are legislatively enshrined in the American ethos with the “Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act” signed into law on November 8th by the president, after being passed in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
It is widely believed by numerous people of scientific pursuit and depth that without the brilliance of three special women, the first American attempt to have an astronaut orbit the globe would not have been successful. Absent these women, many experts conclude, the first attempt may well have been a disaster and a national disgrace, with perhaps the lone astronaut losing his life.
Two years prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and three years prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, three African American women highly-trained in mathematics and engineering and in the space program, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, were the brain trust that led to the successful launch and landing of Friendship 7, the spacecraft piloted by John Glenn, a Marine Corps airman who later became a United States Senator.
For more than four decades the roles that these three pioneering scientists played in the success of the mission went unnoticed by the overwhelming majority of Americans. It was not until 2016 when a major motion picture about the role the three women played did they receive the notoriety and gratitude that they had earned and deserved.
The new legislation was written specifically for these three women, and for Christine Darden who excelled as a NASA spaceflight engineer and mathematician while researching supersonic flight and sonic booms. Her work during the four decades she worked at NASA was crucial to space flight and astronaut safety.
The legislation awards Congressional Gold Medals to two of the four women who are still alive, Christine Darden and Katherine Johnson. It is posthumously awarded to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Additionally, a Congressional gold medal is also awarded to women that contributed to the work of NASA and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a federal agency, between the years 1930 and 1970.
It was my great privilege to be the principal sponsor of the legislation in the House of Representatives. Senator Chris Coons from Delaware was my counterpart in the Senate. The accomplishments and legacies of these four women and countless others have motivated many young women to enter into the fields of the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The honored women are simply not heroines of America’s space program. They represent the best that our country has offered to the world. Their lives deserve to be emulated!