Nasa, the US space agency, has renamed the street in front of its headquarters Hidden Figures Way, honouring the black female mathematicians who defied racial segregation to play a crucial part in its most celebrated missions.
The designation honours African American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, featured in the 2016 book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and subsequent film directed by Theodore Melfi.
Shetterly joined members of each woman’s family on Wednesday along with Ted Cruz, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, Jim Bridenstine, the Nasa administrator and Christine Darden, one of Nasa’s human “computers” during the Apollo era. New street signs were unveiled outside the Nasa offices on E Street in Washington.
Nasa is preparing to celebrate next month’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and first moon landing. All 12 people who walked on the moon were white American men.
Cruz, who pushed for the name change after going to see the film with his mother, wife and daughters, told the Guardian: “I think it’s important to recognise everybody’s contributions. Women and men across every racial and ethnic line have contributed to this incredible journey we’re on and I think it is also vitally important that we send the message to little girls and little boys that there is no limit to what you can accomplish.”
Cruz, whose mother was a mathematician at the Smithsonian Institution in the 1950s, added: “The extraordinary achievements of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Dr Christine Darden, who’s with us today, prior to the book and the movie had not been told. Very few people knew those stories, and yet those are stories that can and do inspire and we should be telling stories like that a lot more often.”
The movie adaptation of Hidden Figures, which starred Janelle Monáe, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer and received three Oscar nominations, showed the struggle of African American women for equality at Nasa during the era of Jim Crow laws.
In the 1950s, mathematicians were known as “computers” and African Americans were known as “coloured computers”. African American women in Nasa’s computing pool were separated from their white colleagues even as they calculated trajectories for missions involving Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth.
The renaming followed legislation floated last year by both the US Senate and Washington DC council. The local law was passed unanimously in December. In February, Nasa renamed a facility in Fairmont, West Virginia after Johnson, now 100 years old. In 2015, Barack Obama awarded her the presidential medal of freedom, America’s highest civilian honour.