Taraji P. Henson To Play NASA Mathematician In Upcoming Film

Actress and singer Taraji P. Henson has been chosen to play one of the three female mathematicians who helped launch the first American astronaut into space.

The upcoming film, entitled Hidden Figures, will be produced by Fox 2000 and is based on a book of the same title written by Margot Lee Shetterly called Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.

Publisher HarperCollins will release the book in September.

Henson, 45, was chosen to play the role of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who, with the help of her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, paved the way for the United States to send astronaut John Glenn into orbit, making him the first American to do so.

The three female protagonists managed to cross boundaries of race, gender, and profession in attaining what appeared to be unachievable at that time. Aside from the three women, other female African-American employees who worked with NASA at the time were Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith, and Barbara Holley.

According to the book, some NASA staffers referred to them collectively as the “colored computers.”

Aside from helping Glenn fly the Friendship 7 spacecraft and shooting him into orbit in 1962, the team of mathematicians also instructed the program on how the astronaut could safely return home.

Johnson, who is now 97, did an interview with MAKERS recently, where she was asked about how she became a space mathematician for the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA).

In the interview, she revealed that people around her always told her that she had a habit of counting everything. A professor also acknowledged her extraordinary computing skills, and so she took up advanced math lessons.

After completing her bachelor’s and graduate degrees, she was contracted as a research mathematician by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which is the agency that preceded NASA.

Johnson was then assigned to the agency’s all-male flight research team initially on a temporary basis. However, her brilliance earned her a permanent spot in the position. Some of the projects she worked with include Alan Shephard’s first flight in space, Glenn’s orbit, and Apollo 11, which was the first mission to the moon.

Shetterly’s book aims to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the female mathematicians, discrimination, and stereotyping among male co-employees. The book will also detail how Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson managed to succeed in spite of all the pressure surrounding them.

According to the author, she wants to “recover the history” of pioneering women who helped the United States during the Space Race with Russia.

Shetterly is a journalist whose father is among the first African-American employees to work in NASA.

Aside from Taraji P. Henson, actress Octavia Spencer was also tapped to join the cast. She will play the role of Vaughn in the upcoming film.

Donna Gigliotti,who is the producer of the film, confirmed that Spencer, 45, who won an Oscar for the film, The Help, would join the multi-talented cast for Hidden Figures.

Gigliotti is not new to creating blockbuster films. She also produced other notable films such as Shakespeare in Love, and recently, Silver Linings Playbook. She is joined by Allison Schroeder, who is in charge of writing the screenplay.

Filming for Hidden Figures is set for early this year, perhaps in the upcoming weeks or months.

The film is expected to be released in theaters on Jan. 13, 2017, which means that the team will need to begin production as soon as possible.

Other actresses who will join Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer may be announced in the coming weeks.

[Image by Mike Windle, Getty Images]