Dr. Darden of NASA’s “Hidden Figures” Visits Hopewell
By LYNDON GERMAN
Feb 12, 2017, 15:52
STAFF PHOTOS/LYNDON GERMAN: Dr. Christine Darden, one of the characters in the novel and movie “Hidden Figures,” gives a presentation about her history with NASA as a “human computer” and engineer.
Carter G. Woodson Middle School received a visit from Dr. Christine Darden, the not so well-known hidden figure. Darden was a human computer and engineer at NASA for nearly 40 years and though she’s not featured in the film adaptation, she is feature in Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel “Hidden Figures.”
Katherine Coles-Robinson instructor at Carter G. Woodson, whose coordinated events for Black History Month at the school for many years was invited Darden to speak with the students there. Darden spoke about her journey as a young woman who fell in love with learning and mathematics.
From a young age Darden knew she wanted to work in the math and science field and education was certainly stressed in her home. In fact when her father learned of her ambitions he made Darden obtain a teaching certificate so that she’d be able to secure a job as soon as she got out of college.
Later Darden would attend Hampton University to pursue a degree in mathematics. She would inevitably marry which would lead her to a turning point in her life. Since her husband was pursuing a degree at Virginia State University Darden had to move.
“I quit my job to move up here well because I was trying to get a job around here where my husband was getting his masters,” Darden recalled during a brief interview.
“I wrote to Chesterfield County and they wrote back because they wanted a letter of recommendation so I went to my principal in Portsmouth and he said sure I’ll give you a letter but you give me your contract.”
With that Darden moved on, but she wouldn’t hear anything further from Chesterfield County. Darden was taking in-service classes at the time and after getting to know her instructors she began inquiring for jobs. Her teacher directed her to the head of the physics department where she gained a research assistant position in aerial physics.
“That was definitely a turning point in the direction my life took,” Darden said as soon after earning her masters and working in applied physics she began working with NASA.
Darden entered NASA at 1967, years after the women depicted in the film Hidden Figures fought to integrate their department of African American scientist also known as the West Area Computers. Darden started out as a human computer working in reentry physics, but during her initially five years there NASA was undergoing dramatic changes and Darden was facing unemployment.
Before moving to an engineering department NASA was laying off workers left and right and Darden was next on the list. During all this turmoil Darden observed how a younger African American man who had been hired the same summer she was had been promoted twice while Darden, who had the same educational and working background was facing unemployment.
Darden had already talked to her supervisors about why this was and how she might be placed in the engineering position as a well but all she heard was ‘no.’
“All I heard was, ‘No you can’t go to the engineering classes, no you can’t take classes no you can do so and so and so…computers don’t do that.’”
Darden decided to talk directly to the engineering director at the time and asked him why it was when women come here with the same background as men but the female mathematician were put in computer offices and males are put in engineering offices.
The director replied simply with no one has ever asked that before. And so Darden was moved to the Engineering department. Darden claims the director explained that women were designated to the lesser position because they would often get married and stop working soon after.
“I told him that may be true of some of the women you hire, but that’s probably not true of the black woman you hire.”
After Darden transferred departments she was able to utilize NASA’s education program and earn a doctorate in engineering from George Washington University.
Once in the engineering department Darden began working closely with sonic boom applications, attempting to design aircraft that could fly over land at a great speeds without disobeying air regulations. Though she and her colleagues came from similar backgrounds and worked in the same field she still faced some criticism.
“I had man tell me once the only reason you all are here is because of affirmative action and I said that’s alright because once I got there I did my job and that was the last I heard off that.”
After a 40 year career Darden has spent her time speaking to schools spreading her persistent attitude to the next generation of students. Darden is a firm believer that as education and technology progresses more disruptive technologies will wipe out manufacturing and labor jobs.
Darden spoke to the students at Carter G. Woodson depicting her journey of higher learning and determination. When asked what advice she would give young people, particularly young girls, who are pursing degrees and careers Darden said, “Take the classes.”
“If you have the math and science in your background you actually have 360 degrees of looking for a job but if you have not taken math an since in high school then you are limited.”
Darden encourages an attitude of planning, persistence and preparedness saying that those who pursue an education in math and science have opportunities all around them but those who don’t will be limited.
As time goes on Darden’s work will surely gain more and more recognition as will the trail-blazing African American men and woman who came before her. They serve as examples to future generations to not only aim their aspirations at the moon but shoot for the stars.