Thursday, January 26, 2017

January 26, 2017: NASAStudying: John Glenn and Hidden Figures

[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
On additive rather than competitive revisionist histories, and their potential limits.
Two prominent recent news stories have drawn attention to distinct yet complementary sides of one of the US space program’s most famous and singular events. On December 8th, 2016, former astronaut and Senator John Glenn passed away at the age of 95, leading to numerous stories highlighting Glenn’s 1962 space flight in which he became the first American to orbit the Earth (doing so three times). And in early January of this year, the very different space flight Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was stunningly dethroned from atop the box office charts (after three weeks in that position) by the film Hidden Figures, a historical drama (based on historian Margot Lee Shetterly’s award-winning book) about three female African American mathematicians (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) who worked at the segregated Langley Research Center and whose expertise (Johnson’s in particular in this case) contributed immeasurably to Glenn’s groundbreaking flight among many other NASA efforts. I haven’t had a chance to see Hidden Figures yet, but the picture of Johnson meeting actress Octavia Spencer (who plays Vaughan in the film) at the film’s December 1st NASA premiere is one of my favorite recent photos.
At the most superficial level, it might be possible to see Hidden Figures as an example of what I’ve elsewhere described as the “competitive” form of revisionist history, one that seeks to replace previously prominent historical figures with previously under-remembered ones. But I don’t think that’s really the case at all—Hidden Figures not only features John Glenn as a character (and one who in a key scene importantly and accurately stands up for his African American colleagues), but it is precisely the significance of Glenn’s flight that makes the contributions of Johnson and her colleagues so similarly vital. Which makes Hidden Figures much more of an example of what I would call an “additive” revisionist history, one that asks us to remember not only the already-famous white male Glenn, but also the previously much less well-known African American women who worked alongside him and helped make this historical turning point possible and successful. Indeed, I’d say the same of the work of Johnson and her peers that I did of Lewis Latimer’s contributions to Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s inventions in this post: that if we don’t better remember the work of these (not coincidentally) Americans of color, we’re both missing the full picture of what happened and replicating the injustices that were far too often done to these figures in their own times and lives.
Such additive revisionist histories are welcome and necessary, and I’m glad that Hidden Figures exists and is doing as well as it is. But every kind of cultural text and genre has its limits or shortcomings, and I can’t help but think that the unexpected popularity of Hidden Figures might reflect such a limit of this particular kind of revisionist history. That is, the story of Glenn’s flight is a story of stunning and groundbreaking success, and the story of Hidden Figures is about how even figures who were oppressed found a way to rise above that oppression and contribute to that success. That’s true, and an important lesson to boot. But it’s also very much a feel-good story, and one to which 21st century Americans can (at least potentially) look to both recognize that we’ve made progress (African American NASA employees no longer have to use separate bathrooms or coffee pots) and to argue that even the worst of our past couldn’t hold back those who were truly determined to overcome. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t tell such stories and remember such stories—just that it’d be important to complement them with (to name one example) a historical film about the victims of the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Now that’d be a truly additive revisionist history.
Last NASA post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?

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