The year is 1957. Russia had just launched into space Sputnik. It came as a shock to many Americans—including a 16-year-old named Christine Darden.
"'Soviets fire earth satellite into space, it has circled the globe at 18,000 miles an hour,'" said Christine, reading a newspaper headline. "We were afraid that the Russians were flying over us and might drop a bomb."
Although afraid of war like many at the time, Christine, a high school senior had no interest in being a part of America's space race. Her dream was to be a mathematician.
"At the same time I realized that math was a passion, I also realized how much I enjoyed physical science. And that led on to physics also," she said.
As a child, her inquisitive nature had her dismantling a doll her mother had given her.
"Well, the doll talked. What's inside that doll that's making it talk?" asked Christine.
By the time she was attending Hampton University, Christine was undaunted as a student. Taking six math classes at one time, she was often the only woman in a classroom full of men. Her faith and determination pushed her forward.
"Things in the Bible helped me live the life and believe that God can help me do certain things and work with me in certain ways," said Christine. "Well, how can I take six math courses?"
As she worked to complete a degree in mathematics, her father encouraged her to get a teaching certificate.
"Because dad thought I wouldn't get a job otherwise," Christine explained. "I think my mind turned to people not hiring African American mathematicians, maybe because African Americans weren't becoming mathematicians."
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With some notable exceptions, including three African American women who were mathematicians working across town at NASA. They had not only broken the racial barrier, but they had also helped put a man in space.
"And Katherine Johnson's daughter was my classmate there," Christine said.
One of the Hidden Figures depicted in the movie based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book, Katherine Johnson also helped put a man on the moon. Still, Christine hadn't considered she could one day work at NASA. So, she graduated and began teaching mathematics.
"And the students tell me when I talked that they could hear the passion in my voice," she said.
Christine didn't stay in one place long. Her love for numbers had her driving 80 miles on the weekends to Petersburg to take upper-level math courses at Virginia State University. It was there that her hard work and talent were recognized. She was hired as a research assistant for the head of the Physics Department.
Now married, Christine and her husband, Walter, who was pursuing his own career, began working on their master's degrees.
"I was headed toward graduation," she noted. "I went by the placement office at Virginia State."
A chance meeting with a woman who worked in the placement office would propel her into a profession she had never considered.
"I don't think I had thought about that. It just—I hadn't even thought about NASA being here," Christine told CBN. "She said, 'Where have you been? Didn't you know NASA was here recruiting yesterday? You fill out this application, I'm going to mail it in tomorrow. I want this back in the morning.' And she sent it in, and two-and-a-half weeks later I had an offer from NASA."
Christine was among the last of the so-called "Human Computers," or data analysts, to be hired at NASA. It didn't take long before she wanted to do more.
"I brought up the issue of why the male with the math degree is doing the engineering, and the female with the math degree is drawing a curve, which is what I was doing at first," she explained. "And that was when I went to the director and said, 'Why is it that you're not treating the same backgrounds with the same kinds of jobs? You're giving the people who have pretty much the same background, but you're giving them vastly different jobs.' I left his office and that was when I got promoted, I got transferred."
Now an aerospace engineer, Christine became an internationally known expert in high-speed aerodynamics and sonic booms, specifically, by writing a computer program on sonic boom minimization.
"When a plane is flying supersonically, a conical form shapes on the nose of the airplane," Christine described. "And all of the disturbances, shocks coming off the airplane, the molecules get pushed out of the way, all stop at the edge of this cone."
She also became the first African American woman to be promoted to the Senior Executive Service. During her 40 years at NASA, Christine was recognized with many awards and honors, including being written about as the fourth "Hidden Figure."
At 79-years-old and ever-learning, Christine continues to work on math problems.
"Wonder what else we can do in this world with math that hasn't been done?" she asked.
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