Dec 16, 2016
 in 
Tech

A Look Inside NASA’s 'Hidden Figures', with WhiteHouse CTO Megan Smith

The Movie “Hidden Figures” starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer portraying Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monae playing Mary Jackson –  portrays the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.

A screening with the movie cast hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama was held  at the WhiteHouse in December 2016. Afterwards, a panel was anchored with the cast to talk about the takeaways, historical lessons and teachings the movie dishes out to young girls and women about diversity, culture and equality especially in the workplace.

<em>Dr. Knatokie Ford (far left), Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, moderates
(IMAGE: ADEDAYO FASHANU)Dr. Knatokie Ford (far left), Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, moderates a panel discussion with, from left to right: Director Theodore Melfi; Author Margot Lee Shetterly; Actress and singer Taraji P. Henson; Actress Octavia Spencer; Musical recording artist, actress, and model Janelle Monáe; Actor, film director, and producer Kevin Costner; and Producer Mimi Valdés.

Megan Smith is the the United States Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House — the first woman to hold that post. With an impressive career background and resume,  as a woman she has also risen to her status beyond odds. She has worked in her career to encourage young females innovators and bring visibility to women who have played major role in technology throughout history. Global Solutions Show host Adedayo Fashanu caught up with Megan Smith at the White House for an exclusive interview right after the screening and panel discussion of the Hidden Figures Film. 

Although a Hollywood Movie, the relevance and historical acknowledgement of this well told remarkable story forever remains, Hidden Figures is a movie based on actual events. While the movie dramatizes some aspects, it is true to the struggles of the women at the center of the story. The victories for racial and gender rights were not achieved easily or quickly, according to NASA their work is not done. NASA says, Today, they strive to make sure their legacy of inclusion and excellence lives on.

As U.S. CTO, Smith focuses on how technology policy and innovation can advance the future of our nation. Working for the United States Federal Government, Megan Smith plays a vital role in ensuring policies that serve to ensure best practices in the workplace and be exemplary to private institutions.

Using this world acclaimed movie as teaching tool, Megan paints a clear and interesting story about NASA’s Hidden and Modern Figures- the women brains in science and technology that are behind many of the historical progress NASA has made, for this interview she a gives us an inside look into the world of pioneering women in STEM/NASA. In between the read, you will find definitions, images and link references for further knowledge.

Why are we just learning about the story of these women, STEM/ NASA Hidden Figures?

There is a lot of stereotypes and bias that holds us back and a lot of it lives in media and stories that we tell each other.

In the case of this incredible movie Hidden figures - their stories are just now known , we are lifting up today four eras of those who have been part of space race , commercialization and exploration and going further and  they should be better known because It’s always been true that women and men have gathered on this work , people of all races and different worlds. It has been team effort and what’s so great with the moon shot(1) is that the call President Kennedy put out and how the country responded - was all hands on deck. companies, classrooms, parents, teachers did things and people didn’t opt others out. There is this thing that constantly happens where we opt people out because we don’t realize that everybody does tech and STEM. There is a stereotype that really lives as if that there is technical people and non technical people and why are we doing that? We consume this and we make what ever art or writing and you make this stuff- but it’s all creative so why are we limiting the creativity of our youth, people and seniors.

That’s a lot with this image of STEM that the office of science and technology policy  team has been working on for the Obama Administration- is really how do we lift the more accurate and right info to the history to acknowledge the fact that everybody has always been doing amazing things together but maybe in smaller numbers because of challenges of bias and other things but people have been doing it. Like this story of Hidden Figures.

<strong>The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy&#39;s May 25, 1961 Speech</strong> <strong>before a Joint S
(1)IMAGE: NASA The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. (learn more here on the moon shot story)

So this is about ‘Righting Space History’ and celebrating Hidden and Modern Figures from what is known as the Four Eras of Space Exploration, just like mentioned in the panel? 

NASA has a site— https://www.nasa.gov/modernfigures about the modern figures who are doing things today.

Talented women and men have long worked together to accomplish the greatest human achievements. And yet, some individuals who have played critical roles in these achievements, notably women and people of color, are under-represented in the retelling of these stories. Unconscious bias and the tendency toward stereotyping often result in an inaccurate picture of teamwork, collaboration, and contributions. Most significantly, it limits future innovation.

Let’s take a look inside the Four Eras,  some of those women leaders who worked during four eras of space exploration:

Era 1: Pre-Sputnik (—1957)

Katharine and Susan Koerner Wright (Wright Family), Bessie Coleman, Grace Hopper, Hedy Lamar, the ENIAC Programmers, Amelia Earhart, Maggie Gee and Ola Mildred Rexroat of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), and many more.

Era 2: First Launch-Mercury-Gemini-Apollo (1957-1970s)

Mary Sherman Morgan, Dorothy Vaughn, Katharine Johnson, Wally Funk, Jeanne Crews, Geraldyn (“Jerrie”) M. Cobb, Dorothy “Dottie” Lee, Margaret Hamilton, and many more.

Many don’t know about the Mercury 13, we know of Mercury 7 with John Glen but not Mercury 13- who were initially 25 women, narrowed down to 13, who participated in and passed the very same physical and psychological tests that determined the original astronauts. These 13 women - Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk - passed the same tests as the Mercury 7.

Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the "Mercury 13"), these seven women who once aspired to f
(IMAGE: NASA)Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the “Mercury 13”), these seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B near the Space Shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995. The so-called Mercury 13 was a group of women who trained to become astronauts for America’s first human spaceflight program in the early 1960s.

Era 3: Shuttle – Hubble - Space Station (1970s-1990s)

Nancy Roman who is known to many as the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope., Shannon Lucid, Mae Jemison, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Peggy Whitson, Yvonne Cagle, and many more.

Nancy Roman with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory
(IMAGE: NASA) Nancy Roman with a model of the Orbiting Solar Observatory

Era 4: Now (1990s-)

Dava Newman, Marleen Martinez Sundgaard, Eileen Collins, Adriana Ocampo, Gwynne Shotwell, Debbie Martinez, Sunita Williams, Ellen Ochoa, Julie Kramer White, and many more.

The fourth Era is what we are doing today, from SpaceX, commercialization of space. Many know Elon Musk but not Gwynne Shotwell the two run the company together. Gwynne is the  President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, a United States corporation providing space transport services to both government and commercial customers. There is also Blue horizon that has lots of women, Commercial crew has women, Journey to Mars team has women, Pluto team has three incredible women scientist who are major leaders - so where the exploration or earth observing- this is all full of people, all of us. People don’t know that the first digital programmers in the United States were 6 women, that is a problem that we don’t know these things.

Gwynne Shotwell is here to help us get closer to the future. She's the president of elon musk's spacex, a company invested in
Gwynne Shotwell is here to help us get closer to the future. She’s the president of elon musk’s spacex, a company invested in space travel.

You mentioned Unconscious bias...

Yes, we did a new report on science behind how to improve our organizations whether they are companies, schools, universities, or academic labs, NGOs so the organizations have less unconscious bias lifting some of the talents and diminishing some other talents.

We have a Grid,  a useful tool- a lot of people we found have great practice around what leaders should do,if you’re leading a company how will it look like and how would you know it is working. We created a grid of a shortlist. Shortlist on leadership What should everyone in the company be doing especially the managers around retention or advancement of talent.  What should everyone be doing around talent pipeline as you’re hiring and how you’re searching and breaking through networks because the country is really disconnected in its network

Eco system- what kind of research can you learn from?  We also have a blog site called  We call Raise the floor which entails shortlist we saw as best practice, can be downloaded so readers can use. This is one way our  STEM and Tech federal workforce is offering up the best policies we have seen as a tech and science agency that others could be aware of that they might want to look at for their other organizations.

What is the feedback like regarding these best practices policies being offered as exemplary model?

People seem excited to have something actionable because they will like to do this work but they haven’t been aware, being able to disseminate that helps them  take it in their own way.

Any final word of advice especially for young people?

The United States is such an incredible place for organizations and entrepreneurs - not letting yourself be limited by stereotypes of the past. Do not get knocked around by unconscious bias like the movie. There is a great expression ‘In effort there is joy’- in all of these sectors, opt yourself in and you can do it by finding teammate; Tech and STEM is a team sport, find good teams you can be part of, start by doing basic stuff,  ask how you can help. Practice makes permanent so just start practicing,  it won’t be perfect at first neither is when you’re playing music but you can gain mastery -think of it like a music art or dance and just start doing it. It’s best If you do it in topics you care about. Figure how to apply data science to problems - environmental challenge,  crowd-sourcing, citizen science, area of Justice like police data initiative , transparency data driven Justice, science- real problems. Look at self driving cars today- if they can do that then what if we applied this tech to justice, poverty or education issues?

As we get to the jets of the future, everyone should be confident in creating the different parts to it and not just consuming.