I recently saw the movie Hidden Figures and I thought it had some powerful messages and interesting references to historic space events. Instead of doing an in-depth review of the plot, I will assume you have seen the movie and just point out my observations.
The Space Race
After a few of the characters are introduced the movie opens with the American perspective of the beginning of the space race in the 1960’s. When I first saw the movie I thought it was showing the launch of the Sputnik 1, which was when the Soviet Union beat us in the race of putting the first artificial Earth satellite into orbit. After further review, I noticed they actually called it “Korabl-Sputnik 4” which was the ninth Sputnik mission which occurred in on March 9, 1961. This makes sense because the NASA administrator answered the phone as “Jim Webb,” and he didn’t take that position until February 14, 1961. If you have ever heard of the James Webb Space Telescope which is the replacement to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is the same James Webb.
- Sputnik 1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1
- Sputnik Missions Overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_called_Sputnik
- Korabl-Sputnik 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korabl-Sputnik_4
- James E. Webb: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._Webb
- James Webb Space Telescope: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Webb_Space_Telescope
The movie does a great job of capturing the emotion of the space race for the people who were living during that time. They mention the fear of the Soviet Union slapping a nuclear warhead on top of one of their rockets. Now that they could put something into orbit, there really wasn’t anything that could stop them from doing so and attacking the United States. These thoughts and fears helped mold the history of our country and the development of our space program into what it is today.
Know How to Read, and Fight for What is Right
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), one of the three main characters, demonstrates a natural talent in engineering. When she applies for the NASA Engineer Training Program, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) informs her that the rules have changed and the Engineering Training Program now requires advanced extension courses which can only be taken at all-white segregated schools. The first thing she does after she finds out is reads the regulation straight from the source to understand the exact issue preventing her from achieving her goal. This allows her to understand the possible actions she can take to fight for her right to obtain the education and apply for the position.
Understanding how to read and apply Air Force regulations is one of the most valuable skills I have obtained during my prior-enlisted service. When I was trying to retrain from Security Forces to comm, I had an assignment to another base which made me ineligible to even apply. I asked MPS (the personnel or HR department) if I had any options for turning down the assignment, and I was told that it was not possible. After reading through all of the source regulations called Air Force Instructions (AFIs), I learned although it is not possible to turn down an assignment, it is possible to turn down obtaining retainability (my remaining enlistment contract time) for an assignment. Doing so would cancel the assignment but flag my record with a code which would require me to separate at the end of my contract. Since that was my backup plan anyway I accepted those terms and the assignment was cancelled. After I was selected for retraining, that code was removed from my record and I PCS’d and started my career in my new career field.
After consulting the regulations, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) realizes the only way she could become an engineer was to petition the court to allow her to attend the all-white school. She not only knew how she needed to act, she had the courage to take action. There will be times during your career when you know something is right but there is some injustice that is preventing it from happening. For example, you may go TDY and get overpaid, then six months later the Air Force may try to take $4,000 from your paycheck. Your leadership may try to back-date an EPR so the other guy who is TDY doesn’t have to write the report but you do, even though you have only really supervised the troop for two weeks. If this happens, go straight to the regulations and see if have any ground to fight on. If you do, have the courage to take action and make it right.
I want to pause and make a very clear distinction here. My point is not for you to be insubordinate and disrespectful, my point is for you to fight for what is right but only when it is necessary. There will be times when your guys are getting screwed over and there is nothing you can do about it, but there will be other times when you can do something about it. Don’t be the guy who always causes trouble any time you are threatened, be the guy who wisely watches and listens to everything and fights only when it truly matters. Your priority should be taking care of your people or your career, and your foundation should be in the regulations. Ideally, your chain of command will have your back as well. Whatever you do, do it with dignity and respect. Once you start making waves everyone is going to notice you, so you want to be sure you do it right.
Officer Promotion – Seize the Opportunity
Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) recognized that the jobs they were doing would soon become obsolete because of computer, the IBM 7090 DPS. Instead of being beaten down and distraught, she looked for an opportunity for her and her subordinates to stay relevant. She craftily obtained key information she needed from the instruction manual and the FORTRAN book, then strategically studied and armed her subordinates with the knowledge. Also note that she didn’t just barge in and take over the IBM, she waited for the right opportunity to act.
This example captures one of the differences I noticed about being an officer. While I was enlisted there was always ‘that guy’ who always tried to do the things to get ahead, but for the most part everyone just did their jobs and advanced as they were placed. As an officer it seems like everyone is always trying to look for an opportunity to get ahead, and at first I found it really exhausting. After I realized it was happening, I was able to get a better feel for how it truly worked.
First of all, none of this should be a major concern to you. Your attitude should truly be that you just want to be really good at your job and you want to do what’s best for the mission and the unit. If something isn’t working right or something needs to be fixed because it is negatively impacting the unit, THAT is when you should act. How you execute is key:
- First, figure out who’s responsibility this thing is and give them the opportunity to make it right. If they don’t that is on them and it really isn’t your place to do anything about it. If it is something which is serious or dangerous, of course you can go to their supervisor but that is not likely the case.
- If it is no-one else’s responsibility or no-one else wants the task, that is when you can step up and seize the opportunity.
The officer world (at least the 13S version) is really murky. There are so many wanna-be Chiefs and basically no Indians that usually the lines between responsibilities are incoherent. One of the best skills you can have if you are in the midst of this chaos is to see the clarity of responsibilities for how things should be structured or organized. Once you crack that code you then have all of the ammunition you need to act when the time is right.
My last point in this section is that it isn’t all about you and your promotion. Your priority should be with taking care of your people. Only looking out for your career or your back is selfish, and it ultimately hurts our Air Force. We all know who these people are, and nobody wants to work for them. You need to know your people and their responsibilities well enough to know when their well being is being threatened. A good leader then takes the next step and knows how to maneuver their people and react to the threat before it evens happens, just like Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) did in the movie. If you have the foresight and tact to skillfully execute at the right time, your people are going to come out ahead every time.
IBM 7090 DPS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_7090
I’m Proud to be an American
Every space professional needs to watch this video. On September 12, 1962 President John F. Kennedy gave this speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, TX. This speech outlined the American goal of putting a man on the moon in the 1960 decade. It provided NASA with a direction and specific goal, and was instrumental in making our space program what it is today. Skip to 7:10 for the beginning of the most famous part of the speech.
Seeing this video makes me proud to be an American. I am proud of our accomplishments, and I am proud to serve in the Air Force. We hear about so much division in our country that we often forget that we are all American. I am not a Republican or a Democrat, I am an American. I am not American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, Black or African American, Hispanic or White, I am an American. Can’t we just leave it at that?
Wikipedia Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_choose_to_go_to_the_Moon
NASA.gov Text Transcript: https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
Officer Promotion – Fighting For Success
The third main character is Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), and she is a “calculator” who does orbital calculations for the space launches. She is a resourceful and extremely intelligent mathematician who demonstrates her talent time and time again throughout the movie. At the beginning she is severely limited by not having the tools needed to complete her job with how they redacted the classified information surrounding the calculations. They also try to limit her from receiving time-critical information because there is ‘no protocol’ for her to attend the briefings.
Demand the Resources Necessary to Do Your Job
I don’t know if it is because I am older now or what, but I have become more demanding with getting what I need to do my job. When Katherine couldn’t do her job because the information was redacted, she used the math to read through the lines and solve the problems anyway. When she is told she cannot attend the briefings to get the latest data, she persistently demands it from Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). When Paul continues to unfairly hold her back, she appeals to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and is eventually allowed to attend the briefings.As commissioned officers we swear to faithfully discharge the duties of the offices we enter, NOT to just obey the orders of the officers appointed over us. Discharging the duties of your office (which can also be said as doing your job) means not only executing the mission, but ensuring you have what you need to execute your mission. When I was enlisted I was expected to execute the mission with whatever resources I was given. As an officer, it is my job to get my guys whatever they need to do their job. I have to fight for my people to have what they need. A good officer will ensure his or her people have an abundance of resources available so the only things holding them back are themselves.
Make a Stand Against Unfair Treatment and Childish Games
Throughout the entire movie Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) tries to hold Katherine back. Perhaps he is jealous of her talents, or perhaps he is just trying to find security in his own position. Regardless of the reason, it is petty and unfair. Katherine is respectful and allows him to unfairly impede her success and contribution, but only up to a point. When it started to severely impede the success of the mission, she put her foot down and wouldn’t stand down.
Believe it or not I have seen this many times in my career. The competition between CGOs can be fierce so some people think that the smallest things determine the difference between a #1 stratification vs. no stratification. If you are ever treated like Katherine was in the movie, here are some things to try to remember:
Be Good At Your Job
Katherine was extremely good at her job. She didn’t allow distractions such as drama, segregation, or personal discomforts to take away from her ability to do her job. When she was called upon to act like when she was finally allowed to attend the briefing, she was able to focus on her math and solve the perform the calculations. When they were trying to re-invent the math to calculate the return trajectory, she knew her math well enough to know there was an ancient method which could be applied to the present which would allow mission success. If she had the knowledge, she could spit it out correctly. If she didn’t have the knowledge, she knew exactly where to look.
As a new officer we are all extremely focused on what career field we will get, where we will be stationed, what is weapons school, how to promote, what opportunities we are missing out on, the list is literally endless. If you have just graduated, chill out. Allow the euphoria of OTS to linger while you assess your new surroundings of the operational Air Force and get to know the people around you. When you are ready for game time again, put your nose back in the books and get good at your job. Regardless of where you end up, this is all that really matters. Being good at your job will give you the credibility to stand against injustice.
Katherine’s Core Values
In the movie Katherine uses some potentially questionable methods such as using the light to read the redacted info and losing her temper. It is important to realize that there are times when the decisions we make are not black and white. I am by no means saying we should take shortcuts or sacrifice our integrity, but we need to be grounded and establish in advance what is important to us as leaders. I think the two most important things to Katherine were:
- Success of the Mission (Service Before Self)
- Dedication to Doing Her Job Well (Excellence in All We Do)
Katherine put up with a lot of shenanigans but she always kept her head down and continued to do her job to the best of her ability. When we are faced with challenges in our job, we should do the same. Draw back in to the core of what we are supposed to be doing and make sure we are doing it well. If we personally fail, ask ourselves if it impacted the mission and if so, make sure it never happens again.
Leading Your People
My final notes are about the leadership of Katherine’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). I could have probably spent this entire post focusing on him alone, but instead here are the two which stood out to me from the end of the movie.
- Reward Your People – Katherine worked hard for the mission under Al Harrison’s leadership, and Al knew it. At the end of the movie after Katherine had made the final calculations to essentially save the mission, Al could have plugged in the numbers and proceeded with the mission. Instead, he took time to get Katherine the clearance she needed to join them on the ops floor. By doing this Al both recognized her contribution and knew that her being there to personally experience the mission would be a tremendous reward.
- Be Honest – Paul showed his true colors in this movie and it became blatantly obvious that he was trying to impede Katherine’s success at a large cost to effective mission accomplishment. As a leader, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) knew very well what was going on because he watched it happen. Instead of ignoring his behavior or subtly punishing him by not promoting him, he provides short and concise counseling in the moment. At the end of the movie he reminded Paul:
“Do you know what your job is, Paul? Find the genius among those geniuses to pull us all up. We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” -Al Harrison, Hidden Figures (2016)
- It may have been easier for Al to not say anything at all. There will be times during our career when our guys mess up and we need to mentor or correct them. Have the courage to say what you need to say. It isn’t always about punishment, sometimes we need to let reality be the teacher. But during these times we as leaders need to have that conversation, sometimes a one-way conversation, letting our subordinate know that 1) they messed up and 2) we know they messed up. And sometimes, those few words can be as powerful as any other method of discipline. Sometimes even more powerful.
Links About Historical Accuracy
- Cnet: https://www.cnet.com/news/hidden-figures-nasa-true-stories-octavia-spencer-janelle-monae-taraji-henson-kevin-costner/
- Popular Mechanics: http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers
- Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-story-of-nasas-real-ldquo-hidden-figures-rdquo/
- Katherine Johnson Biography (NASA): https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
- National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/hidden-figures-nasa-computers-women-katherine-johnson-space-science/
- Collectspace.com: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-010517a-hidden-figures-john-glenn-mystery.html
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