Black lives that mattered to NASA: Hidden Figures
Bill Condie reviews the book behind the 2017 film.
Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly
Twentieth Century Fox (2016)
In cinemas January 2017
What a pleasure it is to come across an unknown story and for that story to be both true and uplifting. But it is also shocking that the history behind Hidden Figures has never been told before.
In 1953, Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who was the first African American woman to attend the graduate school at West Virginia University, was offered a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – the agency that was to become NASA. Her job was as a computer – in those days a person, not a machine – calculating the flight paths for space flights, including that of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959; the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon and vital calculations to get the Apollo 13 crew safely home.
But in the 1950s, with Jim Crow firmly in place, segregation was a way of life. Johnson and other bright female African American mathematicians at the agency, including Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, might have had their eyes on the stars but on Earth they were forced to stay apart from their white co-workers.
Their story has been brilliantly told by Margot Lee Shetterly, drawing on the personal recollections of the “computers”, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, as well as correspondence and reporting from the time. A movie, based on the book, is due for release in 2017.
Shetterly, herself African American, grew up in a scientific household. Her father worked at NASA-Langley Research Centre and she knew many of the “hidden figures”. “As a child, I grew up knowing so many black people in science, math, and engineering that I thought that was just what black folks did ...”
What a pity that insight was denied to the rest of us – until now.