Historical Accuracies: Dorothy Vaughan’s Actual Timeline At NASA

Historical Accuracies: Dorothy Vaughan’s Actual Timeline At NASA

Hidden Figures was a movie that took the world by storm, telling the stories of three women who worked at NASA.  Unfortunately, the movie is not something you can take literally.  It has a few inaccuracies to the story, including parts of the story of Dorothy Vaughan, who was played by Octavia Spencer.

Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910, and was hired into NACA approximately twenty years before the movie Hidden Figures takes place.  When Vaughan was hired in during the forties (December of 1943) it was still NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics).  NACA wouldn’t become NASA until 1958.  Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971, and passed in 2008.

 

Dorothy Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan in her twenties.

Before she worked for NACA, Dorothy Vaughan was a high school math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High.  She left, believing her job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would only be temporary during WWII.

In 1941, two years before Vaughan moved to the Laboratory, Executive Order 8802 was signed into law.  This order prohibited employment discrimination (as far as race, religion, and ethnicity) in the US, and as a result, Vaughan was one of the first African-American’s to be hired as mathematicians and scientists.

 

Vaughan really was the head of the segregated “West Area Computers” like the movie portrays her.  Mostly, it’s the timeline that’s off as far as the movie’s accuracy goes.

She was the head of this group from 1949 to 1958.  This group was dismantled three years prior to the movie’s timeline.  When NACA became NASA in 1958, this group and other segregated parts of the facility were abolished.  Most of the women who worked in the WAC were transferred at that time, including Vaughan.  They were transferred to the ACD (Analysis and Computation Division), which was a racially and gender-integrated group that turned to working on electronic computing.

This makes another inaccuracy in the movie’s timeline.  Since the WAC was abolished in 1958, and Vaughan moved on to electronic computing then, the IBM conflict in the story isn’t quite accurate.  In fact, the electronic computer FORTRAN, was purchased and developed prior to the sixties.

Not only that, but the movie portrays Dorothy Vaughan as figuring out how the FORTRAN worked while the men were not looking.  In all actuality, programming like that was considered ‘women’s work‘ at the time.

 

The timeline inaccuracies were obviously meant to keep the movie more condensed.  Dorothy Vaughan really did work with Katherine Johnson (who liked the movie quite a bit) and Mary Jackson during that time, but many of the events that took place during the movie happened before the sixties.

There are other inaccuracies, such as Johnson’s trips to the bathroom were actually Jackson’s problem, and Glenn was never meant to orbit seven times around the Earth, as well as others.

 

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