It’s taken a bit to push me to a HH post, but the 50th anniversary of the moon landing has done just that. I kinda wish it hadn’t been necessary.
Last night I was pleased to catch up with Hidden Figures (2016), the based-on-fact story of three African-American women who were pioneer scientists in NASA’s space program from the 1950s to the 1980s – in particular, mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson’s calculations on trajectory and orbits were crucial to the success of not only Alan Shepard’s first launch by an American into space in 1961, but also later space expeditions including John Glenn’s orbital flight, the Apollo missions and the first space shuttle. It’s a great watch, made even better when my post-viewing research confirmed that it was mostly factual, even when allowing for some messing with temporality and composite secondary characters.
Imagine my surprise this morning when I opened The West Australians‘s ‘Play’ magazine to read ‘The lone woman,’ a piece about JoAnn Morgan, an instrumentation controller for the Apollo 11 mission, and a white American woman. A quick internet search shows that she has been featured in a number of other online publications over the years, but especially now leading up to the anniversary. While I don’t doubt for a moment her credentials to have been there (she was working on the day of the launch) and that she faced incredible obstacles and instances of sexism throughout her career, she was far from “NASA’s only woman engineer ‘for a long time.'”
In fact Mary Jackson, also featured in Hidden Figures, had qualified as NASA’s first African-American female engineer in 1958.
Which brings this clash of history neatly, if not uncomfortably, together in the photo used in The West‘s article. It’s the famous photo of the Kennedy Space Centre control room during the Apollo 11 lift-off, with JoAnn Morgan circled prominently in red marker:
This is where it gets interesting. Those of you who enjoy clever advertising may have seen the “Highlight the Remarkable”campaign produced by DDB Group Düsseldorf in 2018 for Stabilo Boss highlighters. The campaign featured three images ‘highlighting’ remarkable women and their achievements.
And who is one of these featured women? Katherine Johnson, in a familiar photo:
Call me naive or a bleeding heart, but it just doesn’t seem .. right .. that 50 years later there is still a narrative about ‘the only woman’ being a white woman, when not only were Morgan AND Johnson both in the control room, but there’s clearly another African-American woman next to Johnson. Who must have been there for good reason too.
I want to champion and celebrate all women who have showed tenacity, courage, intelligence and commitment in our human endeavours into space – but I’m disappointed that it still appears to be in ‘black and white’ in 2019, and disappointed in the 2019 journalism that allows this to happen. Let’s hope in another 50 years this conversation is long gone.