Behind Neil Armstrong and John Glenn — behind the many white faces that peppered NASA’s public presence — were a handful of unlikely heroes whose talents in mathematics, engineering, and computing helped secure America’s victory in the epic space race against Russia. In this book review of Hidden Figures, you’ll learn about the black women who altered the course of US history in the face of prejudice and segregation.
A look at the American heroes you never knew existed.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Want to learn lesser-known aspects of American history
- Are curious about the events behind Apollo 11
- Enjoy stories of triumph in the face of opposition
Even today, the upper echelons of science and math are largely dominated by white males. In 1970, only 1 percent of American engineers were black. And, by 1984, that number had inched all the way up to 2 percent.
So it probably seems unlikely that, during World War II, a group of black women were at the forefront of wartime American science and technology.
Well, it didn’t seem unlikely to the author. She grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and had always been surrounded by black adults in the community who had worked their entire careers in science, math and engineering.
This is the story of the black women who played an integral part in the development of World War II machines and the space race.
In this summary of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, you’ll find out
- how workplaces were segregated;
- what opportunities the black women at NACA and NASA had; and
- how John Glenn put special trust in one of these black women.
The fact that black women were hired as mathematicians, computers, engineers, and scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory during racial segregation is a hidden fact in American history.
But it did happen. And it wasn’t just black women: By 1946, hundreds of females, both black and white, worked in aeronautics at Langley.
It’s not just their presence that is surprising but the work they completed — some of which altered the course of American space exploration. These women deserve a place in the grand narrative of the epic space race between America and the former Soviet Union, not because of their race or gender, but because of their essential roles in the outcome.
A Door Opens
On the brink of World War II, President Roosevelt challenged the nation to increase its aircraft production.
In Hampton, Virginia, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory needed more employees to meet this challenge. This became more difficult once America joined the war. By 1943, most men were away, and the women left behind were already in demand in the workforce.
Fortunately, the head of a black labor union named Asa Philip Randolph demanded that Roosevelt open the economic playing field to black Americans. Roosevelt complied with an executive order for fair employment.
There was a new labor pool to fill the hundreds of open positions at Langley, and the applications from qualified black women poured in.
Dorothy Vaughan was a beloved math teacher in Farmville, Virginia. She had excelled in academics her whole life, particularly mathematics, and had gone to college on a full scholarship.
Her professor encouraged her to get a master’s degree, but the Great Depression was just beginning as Dorothy finished her undergraduate studies. She wanted to help her family, so she forgot her academic dreams and became a teacher.
Teaching was a very esteemed job for black Americans at the time, providing more stability and respect than domestic work. But the pay was abysmal, and Dorothy had four children to provide for.
Dorothy saw an advertisement at her local post office: A federal agency in Hampton, Virginia, needed women for mathematics positions.
Teaching was prestigious, but this was something else entirely. She applied and received her acceptance letter a few months later.
Dorothy was going to Langley.
The Double V+
World War II was heightening the sense of injustice felt by all black Americans. Black men who joined the military were usually relegated to lower positions like cooks or grave diggers. Those who finally became officers were mistreated, and black men wearing military uniforms in public were treated as if they had gone above their station.
The United States was eager to race across the world to prevent prejudice while at home they were perfectly comfortable with subjecting their fellow Americans to the same injustice.
Black Americans were all asking what they were fighting for. Some hoped that World War II would be a double victory, over injustices abroad and within.
On Dorothy’s first day, she filled out the paperwork that confirmed she was a new employee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) stationed at Langley.
There were East Computers and there were West Computers. These functional titles complied with the federal Fair Employment Act while still appeasing Virginia’s discriminatory preference for “separate but equal” — everyone knew that East Computers were white women and West Computers were black women.
The West Computers knew that they had to work twice as hard to get half as far in life. They policed their own work rigidly, determined to give their absolute best. Work at Langley was intense and the hours were long, but some had more at stake than others.
Dorothy was intent on making the most of this opportunity for as long as she could.
Black Americans across the country excitedly followed the news of black airmen and their exploits. The “Tan Yanks,” as they were called in the black press, had no idea that a group of black women were partly responsible for putting them in the air.
Langley was a powerful offensive weapon in the American military, renowned for its quality in both research and analysis. Langley employed the very best flight engineers who, as Dorothy soon learned from her many assignments, used exhaustive checklists for improving aircraft performance and safety.
In an effort to turn math teachers into fledgling engineers, the lab required all of the new computers to attend courses on physics and aerodynamics. After 12 years as a teacher, the tables had turned for Dorothy. She immersed herself in her studies, once again filled with her youthful passion for academia and knowledge.
As the months went by, Dorothy became more and more confident in her role as an apprentice mathematician.
By 1945, half of the residents of southeastern Virginia were government employees — products of the war. But August of that year brought victory over Japan.
After the initial celebration, uncertainty settled over America. It didn’t take long before women and people of color were losing their jobs as employers made room for the men returning from war.
After several years of fulfilling work and blossoming independence, many women did not want to return to the home. Black Americans had hoped that the new labor laws, and the chance to prove themselves during the war, would be a turning point for equality in the country, but they found their jobs being ripped away as well.
It seemed like the country was expected to go back to the way things were before the war, but too much had changed over the last four years.
The conclusion of the war didn’t send Hampton into an economic downturn as everyone had feared. The defense industry was going strong, and Langley made the town the center of the boom.
Mathematicians were still in high demand, and women were now a key component of aeronautical research.
Computers with especially impressive math skills were often invited to leave the computing pool and join research groups, giving them the opportunity to work directly under engineers and specialize in certain aeronautic subfields.
East Computers — white women — were pulled into these positions frequently, but it was a slower process for the black women in West Computing.
Dorothy proved herself to be a talented mathematician, but instead of moving to an engineering group she was promoted to shift supervisor and then head of computers.
Home by the Sea
Mary Jackson was a Hampton-born teacher with degrees in both mathematics and physical science.
After the war, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States meant that pressure for more aeronautical advances was stronger than ever. NACA had shifted its gaze from standard aircrafts to spacecrafts. Once again, Langley was casting the net for more mathematicians.
Mary began as a West Computer at Langley in April 1951.
The Area Rule
As the head of computers, one of Dorothy’s jobs was to assign computers to specific engineering teams.
Two years after she had joined the computing pool, Mary went to work for an engineering team and the division chief gave her an assignment. She completed the calculations promptly as usual, but he doubted her numbers.
The two went around and around, with the chief insisting there was an error and Mary standing by her numbers confidently. Eventually, he saw that Mary was right. The situation earned her great respect on the team, and engineers came to realize that she could do more than just crunch numbers.
Katherine Goble was still very young when it became apparent that she had an innate gift for mathematics and analysis. At West Virginia State College she excelled so quickly that one of her professors had to create advanced lessons especially for her.
He urged Katherine to pursue a career as a research mathematician, but after only semester of graduate school Katherine discovered that she and her husband were expecting their first child.
Years later, Katherine and her husband were both public school teachers, but their salaries made it difficult to provide for their children. When she heard about an opportunity for a mathematics job in Hampton, Virginia, she decided to take the leap.
Just weeks after Katherine became a West Computer, Dorothy gave her an assignment with the Flight Research Division.
Katherine’s temporary appointment with the Flight Research Division stretched on for six months. At that time, Dorothy met with the head of the division and urged him to either hire Katherine permanently — with a raise — or return her to the computing pool.
He chose to keep her. It hadn’t taken the engineers long to see that Katherine was an invaluable member of the team.
Not only was Katherine a brilliant mathematician, she possessed an exuberance and curiosity about the work that was inspiring. The engineers liked her spirit and her love of the industry. She fit in well with them and spent long hours discussing the research with the entire team.
Although she wasn’t blind to the segregation around her, Katherine steadfastly refused to let it ruin her job. There was no bathroom for black employees near her lab, so she simply used the white bathroom. Katherine’s motto was that she was no better than anyone else, but they were no better than her, either.
Angle of Attack
In the 1950s, NACA bought two IBM computers. Dorothy knew that electronic computers were there to stay and that mastering them would mean continued job security. She enrolled in the computer courses offered at Langley and encouraged all the West Computers to do the same.
Meanwhile, Mary’s career was changing as well. Her boss recognized her potential and encouraged her to enroll in an engineer training program.
At that time, female engineers in the United States were extremely rare. Black female engineers were unheard of. Before Mary could even begin her courses, she had to request permission from the city to enter Hampton High School.
The results of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 had already banned segregation in American schools, but many Southern states resisted or ignored the ruling. Virginia resisted the ban longer than any other state.
But Mary wouldn’t let this indiginity stop her from pursuing a career-changing opportunity. She received permission and began engineering courses in 1956.
Young, Grifted, and Black
By 1958 the Soviet Union had already launched three satellites into space. America was desperately playing catch-up.
Black Americans couldn’t help but see a connection between the country’s segregation and the missile gap. While the Russians were seeking the very smartest minds to further their accomplishments, many Americans were still actively preventing women and minorities from contributing.
By intentionally narrowing the talent pool, the United States was missing out on intelligent minds that could send more satellites into space.
What a Difference a Day Makes
There were many organizations in the US government focused on the space effort, and in 1958 it was decided that all of these efforts should be combined together at NACA. Thus, NACA officially became NASA: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA was a new, high-profile organization that needed to be beyond reproach as it carried the United States into the future of space travel. In May 1958, Langley ended segregation once and for all by dissolving the West Computing pool.
It was a bittersweet occasion for Dorothy: The victory of desegregation meant that she was no longer a manager, but just one of the “girls.”
Katherine had always been deeply curious. Never one to simply complete her equations and wait for the next assignment, she always asked thought-provoking questions to understand the full context of the work.
One of Katherine’s duties was to prepare charts and equations for editorial meetings wherein the engineers presented new findings and discussed their research. She knew that these closed-door meetings were the key to the real action at Langley.
Katherine wanted to attend the editorial meetings. Any why shouldn’t she? The engineers were discussing her equations.
When she asked about joining the meetings, Katherine was told that “girls” never attended. But this wasn’t a rule — it was just the way things had always been done. Katherine never allowed discrimination to get in the way of learning and pressured the engineers to open their doors. Eventually, Katherine had a place in the editorial meetings.
With All Deliberate Speed
October 1, 1958, marked the first day that the Langley Research Center housed NASA instead of NACA.
Within NASA was a new group specializing in the space race called the Space Task Group. This group of engineers focused their time on Project Mercury, aiming to orbit a manned spacecraft around the globe.
The engineers around Katherine were planning the trajectory of the orbit, mapping out the exact path of the spacecraft from the launchpad, into space, and finally into the Atlantic Ocean.
Katherine offered to run the calculations. She had more than proven herself in mathematics; her analytical geometry abilities were better than the engineers she worked under.
Her first research report was published in September 1960.
It was the first report from Langley’s Aerospace Mechanics Division to be authored by a woman. It would also play an integral role in America’s eventual success in the space race.
Degrees of Freedom
Dorothy’s West Computers were dispatched to different engineering groups once the segregated computing pool was officially shut down. Dorothy herself was transferred to a new division at Langley called the Analysis and Computation Division.
In the early 1960s, computing was shifting from human, and female, to machine. Dorothy had seen this coming and trained herself to be a computer programmer, converting the engineers’ equations into FORTRAN, the computer’s formula translation language.
Meanwhile, Russia was still hard at work. In April 1961, Russia embarrassed America once again by putting the first human into orbit. America followed with a less impressive suborbital flight.
President Kennedy challenged the nation to a new, loftier goal: putting a man on the moon.
Out of the Past, the Future
Sending a man to space is one thing, but getting him home safely is quite another. That was the task that occupied the engineers and Katherine.
The Atlas rocket would be propeling the Mercury capsule into orbit, piloted by former Marine test pilot John Glenn.
Calculating the orbit required an exactitude of the most extreme degree. One mistake in calculation could mean life or death. By this point, most of the calculations were done by the computing machines, but Glenn distrusted them.
Before he was sent into outer space, Glenn demanded that a human check the inanimate computer’s numbers. He knew that the engineers in the Space Task Group trusted their human computer, Katherine. Glenn assured the team that if “the girl” said the numbers were good, he’d be on board.
Katherine sat at her desk and worked through each equation manually. After a day and a half of work, her numbers exactly matched the computer’s output. Glenn could rest easy.
On February 20, 1962, 135 million Americans watched on live television as John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
To Boldly Go
By July 1969, NASA had completed 26 manned flights into space. But the next one was different: they were going to the moon.
On July 16, Katherine and the rest of the Space Task Group watched as Apollo 11 left the launch pad and soared into space. Days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon.
As America breathed a sigh of collective relief, Katherine smiled. She was confident in her equations.
Her work was far from over. NASA’s Apollo Program had six more missions to go, each needing its own calculations and projections, and there was talk of looking to Mars next.
Katherine was ready. She knew that anything was possible.
The story of black women mathematicians at Langley began in the 1940s.
Neil Armstrong didn’t fly to the moon and back on his own. There were many people hard at work behind the scenes, most of whom haven’t had their stories told until now.
Before it became the National Aeronautics and Space Agency in 1958, NASA was known as NACA, or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and its research headquarters were located at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia.
NACA, founded in 1917, was originally a place where warplanes and other kinds of machines for flight were developed. This all changed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union when NACA turned into NASA and devoted itself to winning the space race.
In the 1940s, Langley hired its first black employees as “computers,” since they would be performing mathematical computations. Prior to the forties, racial discrimination prevented these jobs from being accessible to black people.
But this changed thanks in part to pioneering civil-rights activists like A. Philip Randolph, who threatened to send 100,000 protesters to march on the capitol to bring discrimination to national attention.
So, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which desegregated the defence industry, and Executive Order 9346, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
While these orders allowed black women to work at Langley, it was still a segregated workplace. In fact, the first group of black women there were known as the “West Computers,” since they all worked on the west side of Langley’s campus, separate from the white employees.
Nonetheless, they were still at the heart of Langley’s operations, and their story is a vital part in key twentieth-century developments like World War II, the Cold War and the space race, as well as the civil rights movement and the transition to electronic computing.
Some of these women have been duly recognized, such as Katherine Johnson, who was given the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2015. Yet the majority of the world is still unaware that there was a team of all-black, all-female math whizzes helping the United States explore space.
World War II helped open the door for the trailblazing West Computers.
In the 1940s, there were specific jobs that had been designated for black people.
There was your average black job, such as being a servant or working on a farm. Then there was a “good” black job, like owning a barbershop or working at the post office. And then there was a “great” black job, such as being a teacher, doctor, lawyer or preacher.
But working in an aeronautics lab such as Langley didn’t fall into any of these categories. The chances of landing such a job were considered absurdly slim, especially within the black community.
However, the ladies of the West Computer group had an unexpected advantage. As the United States entered World War II, demand for airplanes skyrocketed, as did the need for mathematicians to help design them.
By 1943, Langley was testing a variety of new airplane designs and found itself in desperate need of more mathematicians to make calculations and help maximize power, safety and efficiency.
This marked the birth of the modern US aircraft industry. Between 1938 and 1943, it would jump from being the nation’s forty-third largest industry to the largest industry in the world.
So this demand, along with Roosevelt’s call for racial equality in federal jobs, opened the door for black female mathematicians.
The precise number of female computers who worked at NACA is still unknown. One study from 1992 estimated the amount to be in the hundreds, but it could also easily have been in the thousands. And as for black women, the author suggests there were around seventy between 1943 and 1980.
But it wasn’t easy for these women. In 1940, only 2 percent of black women had a university degree, and, of those who did, a majority wound up teaching in their hometown. But to work at NACA, they had to move to a new city, give up those teaching jobs and leave their families behind.
On top of that, they had to endure six-day workweeks and commute on overcrowded, segregated buses.
And these were but the first of many difficulties they would have to overcome.
In the face of discrimination, the West Computers displayed bravery and resilience.
It’s hard to imagine what a black woman went through in order to work at a prestigious, yet predominantly white, research institution over 50 years ago.
But you can be sure they had to endure racism, segregation and humiliation – constant reminders of their second-class status.
Even finding housing in Hampton, Virginia, was a struggle.
The white computers didn’t need to worry about the area’s housing shortage since they could live in the Anne Wythe Hall dormitory and use a special bus service to get to Langley.
The black computers, on the other hand, were forced to fend for themselves and secure private housing in a neighborhood much farther away from work.
And once they got to work, there were still separate bathrooms, separate water fountains and separate offices to put up with.
Even in the dining hall, a sign reading “Colored Computers” indicated where they were allowed to eat.
Despite these degrading circumstances, the West Computers were determined to set a positive example with grace and strength.
One day, Miriam Mann had enough of the dining room sign, so she quietly scooped it up and tucked it away in her purse. However, another sign replaced it, and after Miriam removed that one, yet another appeared, and it went on and on until, finally, whoever was making the signs gave up.
Katherine Johnson was another brave pioneer at Langley who’d given up her teaching job to work as a computer. She refused to walk to the opposite end of the campus in order to use the black bathroom there and used the closer white bathroom instead.
She also made other breakthroughs, like becoming a member of the flight-research division. Initially barred from the editorial meetings there, she was later able to join them and went on to become the first woman in the flight-research division to author her own report, an innovative paper on orbital flight.
The West Computers helped pave the way for both racial and gender equality at Langley.
It’s important to remember that the women of Langley’s West Computer division did not only face racial discrimination; they also had to deal with the frustrations of gender discrimination.
As a result, it was almost impossible for the West Computers to get promoted, no matter how deserving they were.
Black women had simply never been promoted within an engineering team.
Meanwhile, they had to look on as white mathematicians, especially white male mathematicians, enjoyed special privileges, such as being mentored by senior engineers.
It wasn’t unusual for promising male workers, with the same job description as the West Computers, to get taken under someone’s wing and be treated to lunchtime or after-hours sessions of conversations and shared drinks. Inevitably, these white men were the ones who were chosen for important apprenticeships and, eventually, were promoted as heads of a section, branch or division.
For a black woman, the highest managerial position to aim for was the supervisor of the West Computers.
This is the position that Dorothy Vaughan reached in 1951, becoming Langley’s first black manager. In this role, Dorothy was integral to helping other women, both black and white, secure promotions. All the while, Vaughan, a married woman with four children, was also juggling childcare arrangements and lifting her family into the ranks of the middle class.
Christine Darden was another West Computer who watched less educated men get promoted ahead of her. When she asked her division chief why this happened, he was surprised; he’d never heard a woman voice such a complaint.
Indeed, women were generally expected to give up their careers once they had kids. But expectations weren’t always met – they couldn’t be met by black women who had to continue supporting their families.
Christine made her case and enlightened her division chief. For her efforts, she was finally promoted to an engineering team. This launched a forty-year career at NASA, and she went on to become one of the world’s leading experts on sonic-boom research.
Langley wasn’t just a science and engineering lab; it was also a laboratory for race and gender relations.
By the 1970s, technological advances had made the role of human computers obsolete. But by that time, the West Computers had lived through some of the most important civil-rights battles in the country.
Unsurprisingly, Roosevelt’s executive orders of 1941 didn’t result in immediate nationwide workplace integration and racial harmony.
Even after the landmark court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which made further steps toward ending segregation by declaring that “separate but equal” schools were not, in fact, equal, there was still an uphill battle to fight.
And Langley’s home state of Virginia was an arena in which many of these fights were fought. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd was at the head of a counter movement that sought to preserve segregation. One of his foot soldiers was the politician J. Lindsay Almond, who became Virginia’s governor in 1958, and declared that “integration anywhere means destruction everywhere.”
Together, they threatened to defund Virginia schools if integration persisted, which resulted in the entire school system of Prince Edward County shutting down from 1959 to 1964.
This was the political climate the West Computers found themselves in.
But despite these unfavorable circumstances, the women provided vital contributions that made airplanes faster, safer and more aerodynamic. Through complex equations and computations, they could describe every function of the planes.
And they often had to run these numbers while trying not to think about the repercussions of their work. A bad calculation could result in casualties – and, in the case of US military bombers, even correct calculations cost lives.
Their important work culminated in the space race, where Katherine Johnson was heavily involved in calculating the trajectories of the NASA flight that sent the first US astronaut into space in 1962. Later, she also provided crucial work for the Apollo moon landing.
In 1962, before orbiting the earth, John Glenn asked Katherine to personally do the math so that he would feel certain about his safety. And seven years later, Glenn would once again ask her to run the numbers for the Apollo 11 moon mission.
Both times, Katherine Johnson’s numbers were solid.
The stories of Americans like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson are stories of hope. They show that against the harshest of odds people can triumph. All they need is the opportunity to prove themselves.
Katherine Goble Johnson’s career at Langley lasted 33 years, and her contributions earned her two NASA Group Achievement Awards, including one for Project Apollo. In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mary Jackson authored 12 papers in her years as an engineer. In 1979, she made the difficult decision to step away from her hard-earned title of engineer and become the Federal Women’s Program Manager at Langley. She spent the rest of her career advocating for the advancement of all female employees.
After a dedicated career of 28 years, Dorothy Vaughan retired from Langley in 1971. To her great disappointment, she was never given the chance to return to management after West Computing was dissolved. Dorothy set many careers in motion, including Katherine’s. Although her name never appeared on a research report, Dorothy’s guiding hand influenced many of them.
In the narrative of American history, there is a disturbing lack of female characters, especially females of color. The story of the West Computers is just one piece of evidence proving that black women have played an integral role in some of the most important moments in US history.
The key message in this book:
Women are barely represented in most of our popular depictions of historical events, especially those involving science, engineering and math. And the achievements of black women are even less recognized. But the truth of the matter is that black women were integral to many landmark achievements in the twentieth century, including the Apollo mission that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.
About the author
Margot Lee Shetterly is a nonfiction writer and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow. In 2013, Shetterly founded The Human Computer Project, an organization that seeks to archive the work of every female computer and mathematician from the early days of NACA and NASA.
Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in her book Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Ethnic Studies, Social Sciences, Women in History, Black & African American Biographies, Women’s Biographies, History, Science, Biography, Feminism, Historical, Space, Biography Memoir, Adult
Table of Contents
Author’s Note ix
1 A Door Opens 1
2 Mobilization 14
3 Past Is Prologue 29
4 The Double V 41
5 Manifest Destiny 57
6 War Birds 79
7 The Duration 95
8 Those Who Move Forward 108
9 Breaking Barriers 122
10 Home by the Sea 149
11 The Area Rule 171
12 Serendipity 18
13 Turbulence 199
14 Angle of Attack 219
15 Young, Gifted, and Black 237
16 What a Difference a Day Makes 255
17 Outer Space 277
18 With All Deliberate Speed 290
19 Model Behavior 307
20 Degrees of Freedom 321
21 Out of the Past, the Future 339
22 America Is for Everybody 362
23 To Boldly Go 376
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space—a powerful, revelatory history essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America. The basis for the smash Academy Award-nominated film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
* * * * *
Now a Major Motion Picture from Twentieth Century Fox
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women. Originally math teachers in the South’s segregated public schools, these gifted professionals answered Uncle Sam’s call during the labor shortages of World War II. With new jobs at the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, they finally had a shot at jobs that would push their skills to the limits.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden—four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
“Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.” — Seattle Times
“Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories — Boston Globe
“Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.” — Bookreporter.com