Local ‘Hidden Figure’ shares how she made her mark on NASA


HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — There is a “Hidden Figure” still living in Hampton Roads.

The title may sound familiar, after all it’s the name an award-winning movie of black female mathematicians who helped win the space race. One of those women is Dr. Christine Darden. She lives locally in Hampton but her work has helped others light years away.

Darden spent 40 years as a NASA scientist, and she’s also a former director at Langley Research Center.

“I have 50 papers from NASA,” said Darden as she showed 10 On Your Side piles and piles of notebooks and awards.

Darden made some important improvements in the plane’s wing and nose design during her time at NASA and had a big influence in the space race during the 1970s.

So much so, she was approached so her story could be told.  That book is titled  “Hidden Figures,” by Margot Lee Shetterly, and it recounts the advances Darden made at NASA. Years after the book was published, an award-winning movie was produced by the same name.

The story covers the lives of African-American women serving as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962.  Darden entered NASA later than those featured in the film, but she looks up to women like Katherine Johnson as mentors.

After all, Darden was 25 when she got the job, that was 1967.

“It was an adjustment,” Darden said. “This was my first time being around whites, my whole background was in segregated schools and everything. So, I had to kind of get adjusted.”

She started as a human computer, and then five years later, she went to her boss and asked for why women were not able to move up in rank as quickly as men.

“I said well I’d like to know why a male and female coming in here with the same background are assigned to such different jobs. The female gets assigned the support jobs, she doesn’t write papers, she doesn’t get promoted, she’s at a dead end job. So I asked for a promotion. He said ‘well no one has ever asked the question before’ and I said, ‘well I’m asking it now.'”

Darden says a few weeks later she was notified that she was promoted to aerospace engineer.

“I went to work, finished the computer program and once we did that, we started designing airplanes,” Darden said.

Darden is the first African-American woman at NASA’s Langley Research Center to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service, that’s top rank.

Now retired, she spends her time with the ones she loves the most which includes her five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. She also spends her time traveling throughout the country and presenting to students and those interested in the STEM field, her passion.

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