Sens. Coons, Murkowski, Harris introduce bill during Black History Month 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 and award an additional Congressional Gold Medal to honor all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race

U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), along with 60 of their colleagues, introduced a bipartisan bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden and to posthumously award Congressional Gold Medals to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The bill would also award a 5th Congressional Gold Medal to honor all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race. The bill, which unanimously passed the Senate last year, commends these women for their contributions to NASA’s success and highlights 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 National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became 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 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

The bill will also honor the hundreds of other women who contributed to the success of NASA during the Space Race by serving as computers, mathematicians, and engineers.

“I am proud to introduce this bill with my colleagues to honor Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Dr. Christine Darden and all women who contributed to NASA during the Space Race with Congressional Gold Medals,” said Senator Coons. “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.”

“I’m encouraged to be joined by so many colleagues as we introduce the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act. This Act will award Congress’s highest honor to Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden, four black women who served as mathematicians, programmers, and engineers at NASA at the infancy of the Space age when the agency was emerging from segregation,” said Senator Murkowski. “These impressive women overcame significant hurdles to attain their educational and professional goals, and they continue to serve as important role models, today. In introducing this bill, I hope we send a positive message encouraging young women across the nation to pursue study, scholarship, and careers in STEM.”

“These women were barrier breakers, and their immeasurable contributions to NASA and our nation have cemented their place in history,” said Senator Harris. “For too long, their extraordinary accomplishments remained in the shadows, with the world unaware of the critical role they placed in the Space Race. I’m proud to help recognize their achievements as they continue to serve as a beacon for Black women both young and old, across the country.”

A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, led by U.S. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“I am happy to join my Senate colleagues in introducing this legislation,” said Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. “The achievements of Katherine Johnson, Dr. Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the hundreds of other women working at NASA during this important period in our history are inspiring to us all and have, undoubtedly, inspired many young people to pursue careers in STEM. Congressional recognition of their contributions is long overdue.”

“Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden exemplify the incredible drive and dedication required for NASA’s unprecedented achievements during the space race.  Their contributions to computing, engineering, programming, and aeronautics are all the more impressive given the barriers to success they faced.  For too long, their work went unrecognized. It’s a privilege to sponsor this bill to award them, and the many other women who contributed to the space race, the Congressional Gold Medal. Their lives and careers will continue to inspire Americans for years to come,” said Representative Lucas.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act is endorsed by the Girl Scouts of the USA, 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, 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, AnitaB.org, American Chemical Society, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Statements of support can be found here.