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Modern Figures: Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is NASA participating in Hidden Figures?

NASA participated under a Space Act Agreement with 20th Century Fox in activities around the movie Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, to provide historical guidance and advice during the filmmaking process. The story chronicles the life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and her colleagues who were human computers critical to the success of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission in 1962.  

The agency’s collaboration with the publicity campaign is a springboard for exciting conversations about the history of and diversity at NASA, both past and present. 

2. Why has NASA been hiding this story for so long?

Like many other great stories of NASA employees, NASA has been sharing this story for years. In fact, the author of the book, Margot Lee Shetterly, has noted the title is “something of a misnomer.” The women at the center of the story were not so much hidden as unseen. 

The first systematic work on the Langley women computers began in 1990. A successful book and major motion picture brings the story to a much larger and more diverse audience than NASA could achieve on our own. Hidden Figures has given us is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to tell a remarkable and important story of NASA’s past, as well as those of our progress and ambitions for the future of diversity and inclusion at NASA.

3. Is the movie character Al Harrison based on an actual NASA employee?

The Al Harrison character (played by Kevin Costner) is largely based on Robert C. Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center and later the first director of what is now the Johnson Space Center in Houston. However, the organizational structure of the Space Task Group was much more complicated and was changing quickly during the time period when the movie takes place.  For clarity in the movie, the management structure is compressed and the composite character Al Harrison was created.

4. Is the movie character Vivian Mitchell based on an actual NASA employee?

The character Vivian Mitchell (played by Kirsten Dunst) reflects the views and attitudes of some of the white women who served in managerial roles at that time, but she does not represent an actual historical person.

5. Is the movie character Paul Stafford based on an actual NASA employee?

The character Paul Stafford (played by Jim Parsons) is a composite of a number of engineers with whom Katherine Johnson worked. In her time with the Space Task Group there was considerable turnover of personnel.  Much of her early work on trajectories was done with Ted Skopinski, but there was a team of engineers with whom she worked at the time, including Skopinski, John Mayer, Alton Mayo, Al Hamer and Carl Huss. 

6. Is the movie character Karl Zielinski based on an actual NASA employee?

Mary Jackson did have a white male mentor named Kazimierz “Kaz” Czarnecki. Kaz was from New Bedford, Massachusetts, but in many other ways the depiction of Karl Zielinski is closely aligned with the real Kaz Czarnecki—especially his recognition of a remarkably underemployed talent and the long-term mentorship. Mary Jackson organized Kaz’s retirement party when he left NASA in 1979.

7. Did NASA actually delay the launch of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 so that Katherine Johnson could manually calculate his orbital trajectory?

This scene takes a bit of dramatic license, but John Glenn did ask for “the girl” (referring to Katherine Johnson) to manually check the calculations generated by the electronic computers that were critical to the mission. This occurred well before the launch, and calculating the output for 11 different variables to eight significant digits took her a day and a half.  Her calculations matched the computer’s exactly, giving John Glenn, and everyone else, the confidence that the critical computer software was reliable.