NASA colleague of real-life ‘Hidden Figures’ to speak at Kimball Theatre

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Mary Jackson at Langley
Mary Jackson, seen in the front row on the far right, was a so called “human computer” during the early days of the space program. (Courtesy NASA Langley Research Center)

The film “Hidden Figures” highlights the careers of three African-American NASA employees who overcame discrimination to help put Americans in space. 

Nearly 50 years after Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, a NASA employee who once worked with the film’s real-life protagonists will be introducing the film at the Kimball Theatre.

According to Joe Straw, Public Relations Manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Kimball Theatre will host a viewing of “Hidden Figures” Wednesday, March 1 at 7 P.M. The film will be introduced by former NASA employee and current William and Mary research professor Joel Levine.

Levine said he was an employee of NASA for 41 years before retiring five years ago. He reached the role of Senior Research Scientist in the Science Directorate with NASA at the Langley Research Center, where the film takes place. 

He said he worked firsthand with “human computers”– as the women portrayed in the film were called– who completed essential calculations for the space program in the age before electronic computers.

“Clearly these computers — women — did a wonderful job in bringing the U.S. into the era of human space travel,” Levine said. “U.S. citizens got to the moon before Russia, and to a large extent this chapter of history was not known outside of NASA….If it were not for these [human] computers, we would not have done it even at that time.”

Joel Levine, a professor at William and Mary, he was an employee of NASA for 41 years before retiring five years ago. (Joseph McClain/W&M News)
Joel Levine, an Applied Science professor at William and Mary, was an employee of NASA for 41 years before retiring five years ago. (Joseph McClain/W&M News)

Levine said the African American women portrayed in the film — and many others not included in the script — faced racial segregation and discrimination in the workplace.

As a result, their accomplishments and contributions went unrecognized until the release of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures,” and the film of the same name.

“’Hidden Figures’ is a very important movie and it’s nice to have stories that are untold finally be revealed,” said Marianne Johnston, Program Manager at the Kimball Theatre. “It’s really important for women to know their history. Hardly anyone knew that women worked for NASA. It’s always been pushed to the side.”

One of the human computers’ duties was analyzing data from wind tunnels, Levine said. It was also a responsibility that allowed them to prove their worth in the early stages of the space program.

“Wind tunnels generate a fantastic amount of data. You can run a test for 10 minutes and get millions and millions of data points,” Levine said. “The male engineers were not interested in sitting down with this amazing amount of data, but the women had no problem doing this. They [NASA] found the women could take this data and do a much better job.”

While Levine worked at Langley, he and his wife Arlene did not personally know all of the women portrayed in the film. However, he said that he and his wife did were close with Mary Jackson, who was a human computer and is featured in “Hidden Figures.”

Levine said Jackson was, “Very friendly and outgoing, and very interested in helping her fellow employees, male and female and black and white. She was extremely helpful and always had a smile. She became the head of the Langley Research Center women’s program and she asked my wife to join, and so my wife was on the panel.”

Levine now works in the Department of Applied Sciences with the College of William and Mary, where he researches manned missions to Mars.

“We’re sending humans to Mars on the backs of what we learned from these women in the ’50s,” Levine said. “We’re basically using the same techniques that were developed by NASA and calculated by these [human] computers in the ’60s. The people planning the mission to Mars — we’re standing on the shoulders of these computers. That’s their legacy.”

Before Wednesday’s screening of the film, Levine said he will offer a brief introduction to the crowd. After the film, Levine will provide a presentation and answer questions from the audience. He also said that he thoroughly enjoyed the movie himself. 

“I saw the movie at New Town and the theater was packed,” Levine said. “At the end of the movie, people got up and applauded. Since then I’ve asked probably 100 colleagues what happened when the movie ended, and they all said people got up and applauded. It’s very uplifting — the triumph of the human spirit.”

Tickets are $8.50 and are available at Colonial Williamsburg ticketing locations including the Kimball Theatre box office, online at colonialwilliamsburg.com by calling 855-296-6627 toll-free or by visiting Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram. Tickets for the Films of Faith and Freedom series are also available via Fandango.com.