Octavia Spencer calls the three NASA mathematicians chronicled in her new movie, “Hidden Figures,” “unsung heroes,” and can’t believe the story of their contribution to the space program has been so overlooked.
“Honestly, I thought it was historical fiction because I had grown up with the narrative of what happened in the space race and we’ve seen so much archival footage, I thought the fact that we never heard of these women, it had to be fiction,” Spencer said. “And then I felt compelled to be part of the story because I feel like these women are unsung heroes.”
In an episode of the “Close Up With TheWrap” video series shot at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Spencer sat down with NASA astrophysicist Andrea Razzaghi to discuss what it was like being a woman working for NASA.
“We are talking about NASA, and they were more progressive than regular society,” Spencer began. “What was it like working at NASA?”
“I was the only woman in a group of 50 engineers,” revealed Razzaghi, adding that the restroom she used was labeled “woman” while the men’s bathroom was labeled “men.”
And being a minority woman, she said, made people treat her with skepticism.
“The white males were given the benefit of the doubt. I often had to get through that hurdle,” Razzaghi said. “When I was working on a design and I was calling a company about getting a specialized ball bearing made for my project, he asked me very impatiently, ‘would you please put the engineer on the phone?’ I said, ‘Well, I am the engineer so can we continue our discussion about how your company might be able to provide what I need for my project?'”
In Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures,” Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, one of the so-called human “computers” employed by NASA in the early ’60s to do rapid-fire math to support the effort to launch a manned rocket into space.
Her colleagues, equally little-known by history, included Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a numbers prodigy who helped calculate key trajectories for John Glenn’s orbit around Earth in 1962, and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe), who became the first African-American female aerospace engineer.
“Hidden Figures” is now in limited release and will open nationwide on January 6, 2017.