A Tricoastal Woman: Church, the Space Program, and Hidden Figures

Friendship 7When I think about the space program, I think about the Episcopal Church.

The small town where I grew up was founded by Quakers, though a more conservative branch of them than the ones associated with the American Friends Service Committee and other activist groups. The Southern Baptists brought the second church to town.

The third church in Friendswood was Episcopal. The priest from a nearby town convinced my parents and a few other folks that they needed their own church. As soon as they got it going, holding services in the school on Sunday evenings, the priest decamped for Alaska, leaving our tiny church on its own.

Up until this point my parents had been what are generally referred to as “Christmas and Easter Episcopalians.” Except for those holidays, the closest they got to church was dropping my sister and me off at the Quaker Sunday school.

But after the Church of the Good Shepherd got started, we became the kind of family that went to church every Sunday, not to mention choir practice on Wednesday. My father became a lay reader and served as senior warden. He also spent a lot of time visiting the bishop in Houston, asking for a permanent priest for our tiny mission church. (We weren’t big enough to pay our own bills, so we were at the mercy of the bishop when it came to having a priest.)

Good Shepherd was hanging by a thread until 1962, when the federal government decided to put the Manned Spacecraft Center in a cow pasture about five miles from Friendswood. A cow pasture that had been under ten feet of water after Hurricane Carla in 1961.

Today it’s known as the Johnson Space Center, which is very appropriate, because I am convinced (as was my father before me) that it was Lyndon B. Johnson that got it put there. The economic boom generated by NASA not only rebuilt the hurricane-damaged economy, it sent it rocketing (so to speak).

And it did the same for Good Shepherd. With the center came engineers and scientists, all with families and in need of places to live, some of them Episcopalians. A subdivision boom put a lot of them in Friendswood. The church got a permanent priest, and we got a raft of lay readers to help my father out.

The range of accents was a pleasure in itself. In addition to my father’s strong West Texas twang, we had lay readers with British, Boston, Tidewater Virginia, and Georgia accents. We also got a Julliard-trained soprano for our choir. We were still a small congregation, but there was no chance the church wouldn’t thrive.

We didn’t have any astronauts. What we had were the people who made the whole thing possible, who put a man on the Moon. Chris Kraft, who ran mission control, was the Virginia-accented lay reader.

Growing up with the space program that way didn’t make me a science fiction writer; I came to that by other means. But it did make me a believer in space exploration. I remain disappointed that we pulled back so much once we’d beaten the Russians to the Moon.

But growing up with the space program – going to church with it – makes me think I know more about it than the average person. Seeing the movie Hidden Figures the other day reminded me of the gaps in my knowledge.

I knew, more or less, that women had worked as “computers” as part of the space program (and also on defense projects that required a lot of calculations), but I didn’t know the history of women like Katherine Johnson and the other African American women portrayed in that movie.

Hidden Figures is a classic Hollywood feel-good movie. I’m usually pretty cynical about that kind of film, but the truth is, the movie made me feel good. I even cried at the scene where Johnson’s husband-to-be proposes. (So did my sweetheart. We are both suckers for the Hallmark moment.)

Movies are notorious for messing with history to make a better story, and I’m sure there are elements of the movie that are not true to life. But the core story of these very bright women and the contribution they made to space exploration is true and is inspiring.

The racism rang true as well, though in the movie the white people were mostly just rude and unwilling to rock the boat. I suspect the reality was a little grimmer than that. And it’s not possible to watch the movie without reflecting about all the smart women who were relegated to jobs as computers because they weren’t considered capable of doing more – even when someone like Johnson proved just how capable she was.

I thought afterwards that the women featured in the movie – Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn – came across as almost too good to be true. And then I realized that’s exactly how former President Barack Obama and his family came across during his presidency. People who break barriers frequently have to live up to a higher standard than the rest of us.

It is possible to critique the movie for making it look like overcoming racism is just a matter of having people who are really competent show racists that they’re worthy of hire, but it seems a little churlish to do so, especially when we ended up with a successful movie about African American women. How often does that happen?

So I’ve only got one real criticism of the movie: Where were the slide rules? It was the early 60s, before pocket calculators, back when a mainframe computer that couldn’t do as much as your smartphone took up a whole room.

I know damn well that every one of those smart mathematicians and engineers working on the Mercury program carried a slide rule and used it constantly. I’m sure Johnson and the other computers did too. You couldn’t do logarithms without one back then.

Most of the other details – the men in white shirts and ties, the women in heels, the cars, church – they got right. But it would have been nice to see Johnson using a slide rule when she was figuring out trajectories and such.

Still, it was wonderful to find out that the space program wasn’t quite as white and male as it looked like in my home town. And nice to be reminded of the push to get into space. We’re curious animals, we humans, and we need projects that challenge us. All of us.

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A Tricoastal Woman: Church, the Space Program, and Hidden Figures — 12 Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review. I’ve been wondering if it was worth seeing–Hollywood can screw up so badly.

  2. That first scene, when they get questioned by the policeman when their car breaks down, set up a sense of peril for me: if they weren’t properly subservient and cooperative, there was a real danger that something bad might happen.

    It’s a lovely film. It earns its tears.

  3. I cried when she was let into the room. And when her cousin was right to the last digit.
    And wanted to yell every time she ran to the bathroom. Do you know that women all over the world faced and face the problem of finding a bathroom while doing science? I have personally felt how humiliating it is to walk and walk and walk when men don’t, or in one case “just use the handicapped restroom, dear”.

    • Bathrooms were an issue back then (and later) for women lawyers, too. IIRC, there was no women’s bathroom nearby when Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court.

      I clapped — along with much of the rest of the audience — when she was let in the room. (I probably would have cheered, but theater manners.)

  4. And I definitely recommend the movie. I avoided seeing Mississippi Burning years back because I knew the history and was damn well aware that the FBI was not the hero there. But this one seems to me to be about as close as a major movie can be to good history.

  5. They probably omitted the slide rules because the younger viewers wouldn’t have a clue what they were, and it would be too much of a distraction in the narrative to try to explain.

    I still have my father’s circular slide rule kicking around somewhere. Ah, the memories…

  6. You are so right about the sliderules! I never thought about it, because I was the first year in my high school to use handheld calculators. My father was all set to give me one of his sliderules, but I just never needed it. Calculators don’t use reverse Polish notation anymore, though.

    “Hidden Figures” is a wonderful movie. I might have applauded. More than once.

    • To be very honest, we didn’t think about the slide rules until after the movie. It suddenly dawned on us.

      I’m older than you, so I was past math classes before calculators became available. But my high school algebra and pre-calculus teacher used to tell us that it was most important to learn how to set up the problem. You’ll have a machine at your desk to do the calculations. Sounded like pie in the sky to me.

    • I can’t argue with that review. It’s particularly accurate about how gently the movie treats the racism of the time. OTOH, given that most major movies are about white men, it’s a real pleasure to see a movie starring African American women telling a story that most of us didn’t even know existed.

      But it should probably be shown on a double bill with I Am Not Your Negro.