Real-life 'Hidden Figure' has connection to Durham

DeJuan Hoggard Image
Saturday, February 25, 2017
'Hidden Figures' connection to the Triangle
One of the real-life 'Hidden Figures' has a connection to the Triangle

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article may contain spoilers

Christine Barnes Richie is a hidden figure. Not because the critically-acclaimed film "Hidden Figures" doesn't personally depict her, but rather, because she was part of the West Computing Group at NASA. The African-American female group was instrumental in NASA's space race by calculating trajectory courses for astronauts.

The 85-year-old Richie lives in Newport News, Va., and is somewhat of a celebrity with friends and family. After they found out Richie was a former member of the West Computing Group, they took her to the movies to see the film.

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She had already seen it, though, when she was awarded with a prestigious honor by NASA. Richie told ABC11 the award partially reads, "Your actions and inspiration paved the way for NASA's diverse workforce."

North Carolina Central University can take credit for Richie's pre-NASA days. Richie attended then-named North Carolina College at Durham.

"I was glad to have a job (at NASA) doing something that I liked to do, working with numbers, and that I was trained to do," Richie said. "I think North Carolina College at Durham prepared me well."

Richie is not upset the film doesn't necessarily portray her, but is glad the film was made.

"I don't think most of us were thinking about making history," Richie recalled, "We were just glad to have a job."

She also wishes the women highlighted in the film were alive to see what has been made. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), now Katherine Goble, is the only living member of the trio portrayed in the film; which also stars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.

Richie's contributions to NASA lasted for more than 30 years.

"I like working with numbers and the money was good. So I guess that's what kept me going," said Richie with a laugh. "That's the highlight of my career, because I spent the most of my life there."

Richie arrived at NASA in 1955, two years after Katherine Johnson began her work at NASA. Richie and Johnson knew each other and would see one another often in the cafeteria.

Dorothy Vaughan's family members toured the exhibit in Chapel Hill last week.
Courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Spencer) was Richie's supervisor. In the film, Vaughan would receive work orders for the West Computing Group and make assignments.

Vaughan and Johnson are both currently featured at the "Firsts in Flight: A Hidden History" exhibit at the Morehead Planetarium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. The exhibit highlights the contributions WCG made to NASA and how they advanced space exploration.

"As of now, we have no plans to take (the exhibit) down," said Sarah Brown, the planetarium's marketing manager.

Last week, Vaughan's family members toured the exhibit and signed books for girls from Raleigh's Wiley Magnet Middle School.

Margot Lee Shetterly wrote "Hidden Figures."
Courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

"Hidden Figures" is based on the best-selling book of the same name. Author Margot Lee Shetterly sold the rights to the film while her literary agent was shopping a publisher for the book.

While in many Hollywood movies, the book predates the film, for "Hidden Figures," the film premiered in theaters before the book was officially on sale.

"Hidden Figures" is nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Spencer), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Watch the Oscars live Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC11.

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