January 27, 2017

A Look at Langley Research Center, Where the Women of "Hidden Figures" Worked

A scene from the movie Hidden Figures

photo by: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A scene from the movie "Hidden Figures."

One hundred years ago, Langley Research Center was established with a simple but ambitious goal: to “solve the fundamental problems of flight.”

Built for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics—a federal agency established by Congress in 1915—Langley Research Center was the nation’s first civil aeronautics laboratory. (NACA was dissolved in 1958 and saw its assets and personnel transferred to a new agency, NASA.)

The Hampton, Virginia, laboratory has cemented its place in history many times over. When its Variable Density Tunnel became operational in 1922, it was the first pressurized wind tunnel in the world. Researchers at the laboratory went on to develop the wing shapes that are still used in today’s airplane designs. It was the birthplace of the U.S. space program in the 1950s. It’s where Neil Armstrong and others learned to land on the moon in the ‘60s.

And if you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, you know another piece of its history; it’s where a group of remarkable women worked behind the scenes to help put John Glenn into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962.

Three of those women—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan—were so-called human computers at NASA. Though they were brilliant mathematicians, they worked in a segregated area of the facility. And despite the pervasive racism and sexism of the era, they achieved extraordinary things.

Jackson, an aeronautical engineer, petitioned the city of Hampton, Virginia, to allow her to attend its all-white high school so that she could take courses to advance her career. She was the first female African-American engineer employed by NASA. Johnson, a mathematician who started high school at the age of 10, calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission and also worked on the Apollo and space shuttle programs. And Vaughan was NASA’s first African-American supervisor.

The movie is based on a book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father was an atmospheric scientist at Langley Research Center.

Most of the movie was filmed in Atlanta, not at Langley Research Center. But it does give viewers a look at the groundbreaking work that happened there.

2017 marks the centennial of Langley Research Center. Throughout the year, it will be sharing its different milestones, starting in January with a look at the laboratory’s contributions to aviation.

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Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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