Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why I'm Not Smart Enough to Work for NASA

The next film I got to see nominated for Best Picture for 2016 was Hidden Figures. A biopic based on the real life story of three NASA engineers who faced discrimination in the early 1960's for being women and black.  These women helped NASA in the early days of the space race and are part of the incredible intelligent and talented team of scientists and engineers who eventually put a man on the moon.

Now I know that I don't have what it takes to work for NASA or come close to the intelligence or skills of these three women, but I do have things in common with them.

First we must recognize Dorothy Vaughan, a brilliant mathematician and human computer, who taught herself and her coworkers, FORTRAN and headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division at NASA.  It should be noted that FORTRAN is not an easy programming language to learn, according to me at least, and to do so in an era where there was no exposure to computers.  She was portrayed by Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spenser in the film and received another nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

On the right you can see me circa 1986 studying FORTRAN in high school.  Not to say that I didn't enjoy programming computers, but I didn't enjoy programming computers.  It was about this time I started to realize that being a computer programmer was not in my future.  I would get my projects done, but they were always at the last minute and consisted of days of aggravation of trying to get them to work.

Then there is Katherine Johnson who is the film's main character.  A woman so smart that she was called a human computer.   While at NASA she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program. Her calculations were critical to the success of these missions. Johnson also performed calculations for the plans for a mission to Mars.

Here is a picture of me circa early 1990's in my Calculus 2 class.  I was working about fifty hours a week and had a part time job as well and realized that besides having no time to sleep, I didn't have time to do homework.  I would go to class forgetting everything, spend two and a half hours relearning it again, and then not having time to study or do the homework and start the cycle all over again at the next class.

And then there is Mary Jackson.  She was a mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  As seen in the movie, she was one of the first black women to attend advanced engineering classes.

And you can see me here when I was a student in engineering school back in the early nineties. You may be asking why I'm laying in the middle of the road?  Why?  When you take mechanical physics and you spend countless hours studying the text book, doing the same problems over and over again, spend all of my free time trying to learn this and then you get a 56 on the first exam.  So you double down, study even more hours, do twice as many problems, push yourself harder than ever before and then take the second test and get a 55. This is why I am laying in the road, probably somewhere on the West Side Highway, hoping that I would be run over by a garbage truck.  No such luck and I am very thankful that I was reading a great deal of Ayn Rand back then to help me get through those tough times.

So as you can see, I do have something in common with the three main characters in the film, I attempted to learn what they all did for a living and realized I wasn't smart enough.  I'm guessing this is for the best.

As for the film, it is well acted and the story flows.  Granted it is Hollywood, so they do take some liberties like the bathroom sign scene with Kevin Costner never happened.  But it is inspiring to see that even with hardships, these three women kept fighting and working as hard as they could to help NASA get our astronauts into space and back to earth safely.  I found it inspiring to see Dorthy Vaughan take the time to learn how to program the new computer and become the specialist on it knowing that it would be taking away her job, instead of fighting progress and sitting back and becoming obsolete.  Her actions not only saved her job, but those of her co-workers since they became the first computer programmers.

Only one major gripe I have with the film, and that was with Kevin Costner's character on how he wore a tie clip.  You are right by agreeing that this is a major, major problem and needs to be pointed out and discussed in full length.  But I will only cover the basics.

Not sure if this was his character who would dress like this, or him simply not knowing how to wear a tie clip.  As you can see from this chart, this is how a tie clip should be worn.
Things like this need to be pointed out.  This annoyed me to no end during the film since it is so easy to wear a tie clip properly.  As a strong supporter of tie clips, you should be wearing them more often but when you do, wear them properly.

That just leaves where does this film rank for Best Pictures.  Compared to La La Land, it, um, excuse me but I need to laugh hysterically...


Okay, that felt better.  This is about as far above La La Land as the rockets they were firing into space.  Well, I found it funny.  Fine, it is the best of the two films I have seen so far.  Check out the trailer and see it yourself, you will enjoy the film.


  1. I'm so glad that you spent some time showing the actual women, who were geniuses in my book, about hidden figures rather than The Stars who portrayed them. I am in awe of anyone taking any of these classes because I have no clue and, um...still use my fingers. Ok, moving on, I didn't even look at his tie clip but that is way too low and the people who Dressed Costner should know better. There is always going to be a Hollywood style when done by Hollywood but I forgive that. I think the States would like to think someone would have taken a hammer to the sign, but truth is...nope. This is an excellent film but I like Lion more. I haven't seen Moonlight yet but I have seen La La Land. I love musicals but this was not that great. I just hope they will make better musicals than this one

  2. I appreciate you sharing the photos of the women portrayed in the film as well as some background on their work for NASA. Very well done film. Every little girl should see this movie to aspire to something great.

    I actually did take a class on Fortran in college in the early 80's. If it wasn't for my brainy boyfriend at the time, I'm sure I would have failed the class. That's why some of us are writers, and others are scientists.

    The other good thing about Hidden Figures is to not forget where this country used to be in terms of racism, how far we've come, and sadly, how much further we need to go.