In 1969, Katherine Johnson attends a sorority conference in the Poconos while also watching the Apollo 11 astronauts make their way to the moon. This is a momentous occasion in US history, and Katherine herself, as a worker at NASA, helped make it happen.
Katherine, at 53, embodies the Double V, having worked hard for the advancement of US technology while also serving as a leader in the larger black community (demonstrated by her continued involvement with her all black sorority).
Black activists challenge the Apollo mission, wondering why so many resources have been spent on sending white men to the moon when poor black families in some parts of the country can barely eat. Other black people wonder why they are not represented among the astronauts or in mission control.
Though the space race and the civil rights movement started in similar places, the space race has been successful while Civil Rights activists have progressed slowly in the face of a great deal of opposition. This frustrates black activists who see it as further evidence that the US government doesn’t care about the lives of its black citizens.
The TV show Star Trek and the black female character Lieutenant Uhura help black Americans feel more closely connected with the Space Program. At one point, the actress who plays Uhura decides she wants to quit the show to go back to acting on Broadway. At an event for the NAACP in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King Jr. himself tells her that he is a fan and that she can’t leave the show. “We are there because you are here,” he tells her. Nichols is frustrated by King’s order at first, then decides her role on the show is important and that she won’t resign.
The presence of a black face on a show about outer space is meaningful because it allows African-Americans to imagine themselves as part of one of the nation’s most ambitious initiatives. Social progress and technological progress go hand in hand, and the African-American community sees Uhura’s presence on the Star Trek enterprise as a stride in the fight for equal rights.
Back in the Poconos, Katherine feels grateful to Dorothy Vaughan and to the other women and teachers who helped her get to this point. She thinks about the challenges ahead and imagines plotting a course to Mars, followed by a grand tour of the outer planets. “Once you took the first step,” she thought, “anything was possible.”
Katherine is at the forefront of the space program, but she knows she couldn’t have gotten there without an entire army of women and black teachers behind her. She reflects on her past while also thinking about the future and the many possibilities now open to her that without the effort of Dorothy and the others would have been unimaginable.