In a country where political divides and conflicting beliefs polarize the population, we require a national identity that interconnects the 326 million of us and reminds us that, in our core, we are more than a simple, bulleted list of traits– we are human.
Fortunately, such an identity exists, and it is forged by our natural appeal for finding solutions, seeking improvements, and questioning boundaries; it is forged by curiosity– the same desire that first pointed us, as well as those before us, to look to the stars and beyond.
The year is 1941, and over a hundred thousand citizens are marching on DC to protest the racial discrimination and hiring bias African Americans currently face, pressuring President Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802– an enactment preventing discrimination in federal and war-related work. Three pioneering women, known as “black computers”, seize this opportunity and become the political and scientific icons we now admire: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Their journey as mathematicians at the Langley research laboratory under NASA is not without its bumps and crashes, with racism and sexism still both visibly apparent in the workplace, but with the Space Race and scientific achievement more compelling focuses, the Langley community surmounts its internal divisions and tastes the success of its inclusion when these women’s calculations send a man into orbit in 1962.
These courageous women, originally scorned as “inferior”, proved that anyone, regardless of their color, gender, religion, and so on, could change the world for the better and were able to orient their team’s goals towards furthering astronomical research instead of towards questioning whether melanin and a skirt signified inability. Their dedication to science helped them assimilate right into the NASA environment, and soon, everyone recognized them as one of their own– curious individuals looking towards the stars. Katherine Johnson once passionately said,” I was just excited to have challenging and smart people to work with”, teaching us all that
we must not let our differences become barriers and instead, look towards improving society and building solidarity with those around us.
The United States currently harbors over 310 distinct religions, 360 languages, and a plethora of unique identities– if everyone put up barricades to emphasize these distinctions, we would all be living in individual, stone-cold enclosures, unable to collectively generate solutions and overcome struggles. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were women indifferent to these distinctions, focusing only on what indulged their curiosity– science. If we, as diverse members of our nation, take a page from their book and looked beyond our differences, we too can advance our country, strengthen communities, and grasp the mighty stars.