Human Nature is the general psychological traits, feelings, and behavioral characteristics of humanity, considered to be shared by all human beings. The novel ‘Hidden Figures’ explores the course inquiry of ‘What Makes Us Humans’ through the use these traits possessed by some of the characters (Katherine Johnson, John Glenn, and Dorothy Vaughan). These traits include human creativity & intelligence; faith & trust; the race for greatness & the drive to achieve success.
Firstly, faith and trust are components of what makes us human and this evident in the case of John Glenn and Katherine Johnson where Glenn only opted to continue on the spacecraft mission if Katherine confirms the figures that would take him to space. A quote from the novel that supports this is when the astronaut said “Get the girl to check the numbers…if she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go” (Shetterly 217). Astronauts resist computers because they are new, but John Glenn chooses Katherine Johnson to double-check the calculations of the electronic computer for his path back and forth from space as she thought the calculations were ‘as simple as eighth-grade math: by the transitive property of equality’ therefore making John Glenn trust and have faith in Katherine Johnson (Shetterly 217). Katherine is the only one he trusts to do the math correctly as John Glenn has no ‘trust’ in the calculations being made by the new IBM of NASA. (Shetterly 216).
This is a historical moment that is going to put Katherine on the map. This is because John Glenn is a celebrity, and she also becomes a celebrity in her field as he asks for help from Katherine. This moment occurs as a result of serendipity—when the hard work and readiness of Katherine collides with opportunity and chance. This also connotes that Katherine Johnson plays the most immediate role in human spaceflight, but black engineers support every mission throughout the organization. With bated breath, everyone follows the trajectory of John Glenn into space. Glenn’s landing on Earth safely. Katherine is celebrated with the rest of the team, and Glenn is welcomed as a hero. Here, the destinies of Katherine and John Glenn are entangled, and she also does when he succeeds. His successful space flight guarantees NASA’s future — but without her, he could not have done it. Katherine is not the only person here to have played a pivotal role, as Shetterly also points out by mentioning Dorothy. After all, Katherine would not have gone as far as she could without Dorothy’s help.
Secondly, human creativity and intelligence are also components of what makes us humans, as seen in the case of Katherine Johnson. Her first task is to help identify the cause of an accident involving a small Piper propeller aircraft. In this assignment, Katherine firstly plots ‘the data to give the engineers a visual snapshot of the plane’s disrupted flight’ (Shetterly 128). Then she engages in setting up an ‘experiment re-creating the circumstances of the accident’ with the engineers (Shetterly 128). Her information leads the team to conclude that the aircraft had crossed a jet plane’s flight path half an hour before passing through the area. Her research catalyzes changes in regulations on air traffic that require minimum distances between flight paths. This scenario connotes that in the Flight Research Division, Katherine’s ‘mathematical abilities’ and knowledge of higher-level math makes her a prominent figure (Shetterly 127). She uses her intelligence and creativity as much as she can to control her destiny and advance in her career. She also helps Langley progress in doing so, demonstrating that having black women at Langley helps the organization achieve its stated goals.
Also, Dorothy Vaughan is another character, in the novel ‘Hidden Figures’ that displays the course inquiry ‘What Makes Us Humans’ through the use of her intelligence. Dorothy was born in Missouri, Kansas City, in 1910. At age two, Dorothy’s mother passed away and Susie Johnson, a housekeeper, got married her father, a waiter. Before she started school, Susie taught Dorothy how to read, which allowed her to skip two grades. Susie also enrolled Dorothy in piano lessons. Dorothy graduated as a valedictorian from high school early, then earned a full-tuition scholarship from the oldest private black college in the country, Wilberforce University. Her scholarship was signed by the West Virginia African Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Convention. This implies that Shetterly sets the groundwork for the success of Dorothy, highlighting the resources she had access to due to her family and community of support. Dorothy is clearly hard working and focused on her work at Camp Pickett, but the description of Dorothy’s early life in the novel ‘Hidden Figures’ makes it clear that her ‘upper level of training and intelligence’ plays a vital role in her story, leading her ultimately to be successful at Langley (Shetterly 10).
The race for greatness and the drive to achieve success is another factor that makes us human, and in connection with the novel, we can see that NASA is under pressure to beat other countries into the space race and establish some form of space dominance. John Glenn is selected in 1957 ‘for MA-6, the orbital flight that would cast the die on the space agency’s future’ (Shetterly 214). To ensure that he is successful, physically fit, and ready for the mission, he runs, lifts, and swims. He completes a lot of Langley simulations. Meanwhile, in Russia, the second man in space is Gherman Titov. As a result, ‘Americans government officials, the press, and the public expressed their disappointment with the delays, many impugning the agency’s judgment and competence’(Shetterly 215). So they are beginning to wonder whether NASA should defund although the spacecraft is finally ready to launch in 1962. This shows that Shetterly builds tension by outlining the competition between the Russians and the U.S. and explaining both the image of the U.S. itself and the very existence of NASA hanging in the balance. The Langley events will have both a global and a national impact.
Furthermore, the race for greatness and the drive to achieve success can also be seen in the case of Katherine Johnson. Her drive to achieve success, persistent actions and ‘strong’ ‘passion for her work’ lead to her being singled out over all the other mathematicians by astronaut John Glenn to double check his historical flight calculations (Shetterly 248). This makes Katherine Johnson a ‘symbol’ and one of NASA’s most recognized computers, black or white (Shetterly 219). Her story’s power is such that many accounts misrepresent her as the first black woman to work as a NASA mathematician, or the only black woman to hold the job. She is often mistakenly reported to have been sent to the ‘all-male’ Division of Flight Research, a group of four other female mathematicians, one of whom was also black (Shetterly 250).
One account implied that the Apollo 13 mission was saved by her calculations alone. It is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history that even Katherine Johnson’s remarkable achievements cannot quite match some of the myths that grew up around her. Katherine Johnson continues to work hard with NASA and strives to achieve success, thus distinguishing herself again during the ‘1970 Apollo 13 crisis, when the electrical system of the spacecraft carrying astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise was crippled by an onboard explosion, making it impossible to run the guidance computer as programmed’ (Shetterly 248). The astronauts first try a method from a paper of using the ‘visible stars to navigate’ their way home co-authored by Katherine (Shetterly 248). Then a second method that only works because one astronaut had previously tested it on the same spacecraft, which was ‘lining up the ship’s optical sight with Earth’s terminator,’ another sign that ‘luck favored the prepared’ (Shetterly 249). For the rest of her days, Katherine works with the astronauts on board Apollo 13 and becomes one of the most famous scientists of NASA due to her drive to achieve success and greatness.
In conclusion, the novel ‘Hidden Figures’ explores the course inquiry ‘What Makes Us Human’ through the use of the story of Katherine Johnson. This is because it has a triumphant ending, demonstrating what intelligence, creativity, faith, trust, the race for greatness and the drive to achieve success (together with community support) can make possible. She is an important example because she contributes not only to one world-changing space mission but to several, proving herself over and over again, despite having occupied Langley’s doubly rare position both as a black woman and an elite research scientist working on some of the world’s toughest problems.