They were called “human computers.” Now, the street outside NASA’s District of Columbia headquarters honors their legacy as the women who helped send humans to the moon.
District officials joined the NASA administrator, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others Wednesday to rename the 300 block of E Street SW “Hidden Figures Way.”
“Hidden Figures” is the 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly about female African American mathematicians who helped send humans to the moon. They worked for NASA in Hampton, Virginia, and struggled in the racially segregated 1960s. Their story was widely popularized through a 2016 Oscar-nominated film by the same name.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency is “celebrating those figures that at the time were not celebrated.”
Cruz, whose mother graduated from Rice University in the 1950s with a degree in math and helped NASA compute the orbits of Sputnik, was struck by the film’s themes. He said he watched the movie with his two daughters, ages 8 and 11, and they spoke afterward of the discrimination, sexism and other challenges the women faced.
When Bridenstine was confirmed last year as NASA administrator, Cruz said they needed to honor the female mathematicians who worked on the Apollo mission.
Cruz filed the Hidden Figures Way Designation Act in August with three other senators and reached out to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. D.C. lawmakers passed the Hidden Figures Way Designation Act of 2018 in December to rename the street and “honor the historic women scientists and mathematicians who contributed to NASA’s mission despite adversity.”
The senators and council members worked together to honor Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - whose families were present at Wednesday’s ceremony.
Now, when children see the street sign, they’ll ask what it means, Cruz told the crowd gathered for the unveiling Wednesday.
It’s a story “about the unlimited human potential of all of us,” he said. “A story about women who helped take mankind to the moon, who helped conquer the greatest challenges of an era, and your story, and your mom’s story, and your grandma’s story are going to inspire generations after generations of kids and, in particular, little girls. Little girls who may be told at school they can’t do something.”
Mendelson, who has been lobbying for statehood for the District, noted that the city is more than the seat of the federal government. Residents who work for federal agencies are part of a growing local community, he said.
“And that the folks like the Hidden Figures and the many other people who work for the federal government are part of our community,” he said. “And when they’re doing something that’s important to the country and to the federal government, it’s also a part of our city.”
Shetterly said the street sign should remind people of the standard set by these women.
“ ‘Hidden Figures’ is not about the end of the story, but it is about the beginning of the story,” she said
Bridenstine noted that NASA is returning to the moon, this time with a diverse crew that will include a woman. The project is called Artemis - the name for Apollo’s female twin, the Greek goddess of the moon.
“This time when we go, we’re going with all of America,” Bridenstine said.