US Coins

Hidden Figures get their due as medal designs are recommended

Three of the five Hidden Figures congressional gold medals legislated had proposed designs recommended Sept. 23 by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee.

The title “Hidden Figures” is a direct reference to the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and the film released in 2016 with the same name, and it has a double meaning. It refers to the intense mathematical calculations that went into the work at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but also to the women who worked behind the scenes performing those calculations for the developing U.S. space program.

Individual gold medals were legislatively authorized under Public Law 116-68 to recognize four principal contributors to the U.S. space program — Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden, with a group medal recognizing the unsung heroes who also contributed heavily to the successes of U.S. space program development.

The CCAC recommended proposed designs for the Jackson and Vaughan individual medals and the group medal.

Proposed designs for the individual medals recognizing Johnson and Darden are still to be presented to the CCAC and Commission of Fine Arts.

Group medal designs

The group medal honors the hundreds of women who worked as computers, mathematicians, and engineers at NACA and NASA between the 1930s and 1970s.

The work of these women played an integral role in aircraft testing during World War II, supersonic flight research, sending the Voyager probes to explore the solar system, and the United States landing the first man on the moon.

The recommended obverse for the group medal depicts a group of silhouetted women who look on as the historic Apollo 11 mission successfully puts the first men on the moon. The figures are symbolic of the “hidden” nature of the many women, including many women of color, who served as computers, mathematicians, and engineers, contributing greatly to the success of NACA and NASA.

The recommended reverse design features, according to the U.S. Mint narrative, “the constellation Andromeda as a nod to the significant space and aeronautics contributions made by the women being honored. Andromeda is also known as ‘the Chained Woman’ which is symbolic of the obstacles and difficulties overcome by the women whose contributions to space and aeronautics are finally being recognized and celebrated — in essence, breaking the chains of gender and racial constraint.”

Jackson medal

Jackson was NASA’s first female African-American aeronautical engineer.

The CCAC-recommended obverse design for her congressional gold medal illustrates Jackson in a lab coat while holding an early model of the space shuttle. The recommended reverse design features a full-length figure of Jackson with a clipboard and pen, superimposed on a large wind tunnel, representing her work with air boundary layer information.

Vaughan medal designs

Dorothy Vaughan began working for NACA in 1943, working her way up to head the West Area Computing unit, becoming NACA’s first African-American supervisor. Vaughan became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a member of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.

The recommended obverse design depicts a portrait of her with an upward gaze. The reverse design depicts Vaughan in a teaching pose, instructing two other computers, who are seated and taking notes. The reverse also depicts a mainframe computer, with magnetic tape units, representing the transition from manual to coded computing and Vaughan’s expertise with FORTRAN.

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