Senate passes Sens. Coons, Murkowski, Harris bill to recognize ‘Hidden Figures’ for contributions to U.S. leadership during the Space Race

Legislation will award Congressional Gold Medals to Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden for their work at NASA

Last week, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The legislation, sponsored by a total of 70 senators, would award Congressional Gold Medals to Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden, posthumously award Congressional Gold Medals to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and award a Congressional Gold Medal to recognize the contributions of all women who worked at NASA or its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), during the Space Race. The bill serves to commend these women for their contributions to NASA’s success during the Space Race and highlight their broader impact on society; paving the way for women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S. It is awarded to those who have performed an achievement that has had an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized in the recipient’s field for years to come.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act will honor:

Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division.

Dorothy Vaughan, who led the West Area Computing unit for nine years, as the first African American supervisor at NACA and later NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.

Mary Jackson, who petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School in order to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.

Dr. Christine Darden, who became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley.

The stories of these four women exemplify the experiences of hundreds of women who worked as computers, mathematicians, and engineers at NACA or NASA beginning in the 1930s and whose calculations played an integral role in aircraft testing during World War II, supersonic flight research, sending the Voyager probes to explore the solar system, and the United States landing the first man on the lunar surface. In recognition of the contributions and accomplishments of these many other women, a fifth medal is authorized to be awarded in their honor.

The lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden were featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book was adapted into the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

“I’m so proud the Senate passed this bill to honor Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden with Congressional Gold Medals,” said Senator Coons. “Each of these women played an important role at NASA during the Space Race, but for many years their accomplishments remained hidden. This bill will help recognize these extraordinary women and bring their accomplishments into the light so they can serve as an inspiration to younger generations of women in science, particularly those of color. In addition, I am glad to recognize the accomplishments of many other women like them through an additional Congressional Gold Medal in honor of all women who contributed to the Space Race.”

“I’m encouraged by the Senate’s support of the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act. This Act will award one of the highest civilian honors given by Congress to Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden—four women who overcame significant hurdles to attain their educational and professional goals, serving as mathematicians, programmers, and engineers at NASA when the agency was emerging from segregation,” said Senator Murkowski. “I hope the support of this bill will encourage young women across the nation to pursue study and careers in STEM.”

“Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden were barrier breakers, and their immeasurable contributions to NASA and our nation have cemented their place in history,” said Senator Harris. “I’m proud the Senate passed this bill to help recognize their achievements as they continue to serve as a beacon for black women both young and old, across the country.”

This bill is endorsed by the Girl Scouts of the USA, Girl Scouts of Alaska, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Physical Society, Association for Women in Science, National Association for Equal Opportunity, Society of Women Engineers, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund, National Center for Women , and Information Technology, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Hampton Roads Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Association for Women in Math, American Mathematical Society, National Association of Mathematicians, Mathematical Association of America, National Congress of Black Women, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, American Chemical Society, and American Geophysical Union. Statements of support can be found here.