Oprah’s starring in a big budget production of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HBO premiere, April 22), and Hidden Figures “Lost At The Oscars But Triumphed At The Box Office,” according to Forbes. The bold telling of these stories is no small thing. Today, Anne Nesbitt shares her thorough and thoughtful reading of the book on which the latter is based – Hidden Figures: The American Dream and The Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly.

From Anne:

Hidden Figures is the heretofore little-known story of the contributions of African-American women to America’s air and space program from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. What has made this story so popular is that few people are aware that dozens of African-American women worked in professional capacities as mathematicians at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which later became NASA) during the decades of segregation in America, and especially in Virginia where Langley is located.

During the 40’s and 50’s, one of the best jobs a college-educated African-American could hope for was that of a teacher. As background, black teachers and even black principals earned less than a white janitor at the same school. In the book, Shetterly takes an in-depth look at several of these women who were influential in the space program.

The story opens during World War II. The U.S. had entered the war and needed airplanes. President Roosevelt challenged the nation to ramp up the production of aircraft for the Army Air Corp – it was not yet called the Air Force – from about 1100 per year in 1938 to 50,000 a year in 1943.

It had become clear we needed airplanes to transport troops and supplies, to pursue enemies, and to launch ship-sinking bombs. But before a plane could be produced, a working prototype was sent to Langley to be tested and improved. Wind tunnels there allowed engineers to examine and test every aspect of a new design. Even small improvements in speed, efficiency and safety, multiplied by millions of flight hours, could tip the balance of the war in favor of the allies. To accomplish all this, NACA needed lots of physicists and engineers to do the research, and they in turn needed lots of mathematicians to compute the data.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

There were hundreds of open positions for people with analytical, technical and mechanical skills. Since so many men were enlisted in the military, women were in demand for jobs which had previously been male-dominated. Executive orders by Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry, plus hundreds of planes lined up waiting to be tested, led to black women being hired as “computers” at Langley. As this was before the time of computers as we know them, the humans who performed computations were called computers throughout the book.  

From “Hidden Figures,” movie, courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The African-American women were placed in a separate section – the West Computing lab, also known as the Colored Computers section. It was sort-of like a secretarial pool, and the women formed close bonds. They were proud of their jobs and their work and wanted to prove they were every bit as capable as their male and white counterparts. Shetterley writes that the women checked each others’ work and “policed” their ranks, encouraging each member of the group to dress neatly, be on time, contribute to the war effort by buying war bonds, and generally not give anyone reason to doubt the professionalism of the West Computing group.

To give an idea of the scope and importance of the work being done, at the peak of World War II every single American military plane was based on research, results, and recommendations of NACA. Engineers conducted tests both in wind tunnels and free flight, and each test resulted in reams of numbers – numbers measuring the pressure distributed on a wing, the forces straining every part of a plane. Mathematicians processed all that data.

When the war was over, most war-service employees were offered permanent appointments. Almost every single woman in the West Computing area decided to keep her job. With the war over, aerodynamicists at Langley turned their attention to new challenges, developing planes which could fly at the speed of sound – 761 mph – and sending planes into space.

In 1950, it was reported that Russia had three times the number of people working on supersonic flight that America did. In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, a missile that could orbit the globe. Americans were aghast and demanded to know how their country, so dominant in its victory in World War II, could have been surpassed and surprised by Russia! People feared that the missiles might be used to drop a hydrogen bomb, and there was renewed vigor for America to forge ahead in the space race. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying “First in space means first, period. Second in space is second in everything.”

As the computers’ work grew in importance, a woman who impressed a group for whom she had worked was often asked to work full time on that team instead of in the pool. This gave the mathematicians opportunities to get closer to the research and specialize in particular aspects of aeronautics. Such was the case of some of the women who are profiled in the book, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson.

Mary Jackson

Mary came to her new team with as much education as her white male colleagues, and dressed every day as if she were going to a meeting with the president. It was absolutely infuriating to her that she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom on the side of Langley’s campus where her new team worked, instead having to walk all the way across the campus to use the “colored” bathroom. This was an example of  the prejudice these women dealt with as they filled professional and important roles at Langley.

As Mary’s talent became  obvious, her boss encouraged her to take extra classes to become an engineer. The classes were only offered at an all-white school, so Mary petitioned the city of Hampton, Virginia, to be able to attend. She was granted permission and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. Mary worked at NASA for 34 years, authored or co-authored 12 technical papers, and retired in 1985.

Katherine Goble Johnson is another outstanding woman profiled by Shetterley.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine was a math prodigy. She graduated from high school at 14 and graduated summa cum laude from college at 18. She was asked by a team to move to the high profile Flight Research Center as a specialist in analytical geometry. Katherine went on to use analytical geometry to calculate the trajectory of several space flights including Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space and John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. She considers her work on the lunar rendezvous which involved determining the exact time the lunar lander needed to leave the moon’s surface in order to connect with the service module to be her greatest contribution to the space program.

She co-authored 26 scientific papers and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 as well as many other honors and awards. She retired from NASA in 1986 and is still living in Virginia, now 98 years old! I hope some of you saw her on TV recently at the Academy awards.

Hidden Figures details numerous examples of prejudice. One of the most appalling is the subject of a new book called Something Must be Done about Prince Edward County by Kristen Green. After the Supreme Court passed the law to desegregate all schools following the Brown vs the Board of education decision, Prince Edward County, Virginia, refused to comply. Rather than integrate, the county closed its public schools – locked and chained the doors! A private white academy was opened. Black parents were left with few options – move to another county, send their children to live with relatives elsewhere, or have children who didn’t go to school. The public school system was entirely closed from 1959 to 1964.

For the African-American women working at NASA, putting a man on the moon was starting to seem easier than putting black students and white students together in a classroom in Virginia!

Hidden Figures is an American story – talent and hard work led to jobs in which people could make important contributions to their families, their country, and the field of aeronautics. This book is inspirational and educational. 

Author Margot Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, near Langley. Her father was a climate scientist at NASA. Until recently, she had never stopped to think that the many African-Americans working in science, math and technology jobs when she was growing up was unusual. On a visit home in the past couple of years, she became interested in telling this story. The fact that black women had been recruited to work at NASA in the South during the days of segregation is a story worth telling! Shetterley is a first-time author with no background as a historian, but her passion for her subject pushed her to research and write this book. Shetterley was fortunate to be able to spend time with Katherine Goble Johnson and several other mathematicians who are still living in or around Hampton, Virginia.

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A bit of background on Anne Nesbitt:

Born and raised in Nashville, Anne grew up reading Nancy Drew and still loves mysteries! Anne and her husband Tommy have raised four children they enjoy spending time with (again – no small thing). She plays golf and bridge, always aspiring to be better; she delivers Meals on Wheels through St. Luke’s; she absolutely loves a day that’s 70 degrees and sunny, especially in the fall. She and Tommy had so much fun during their recent trip to the Masters, and they’ve got a trip on the books to England and France this summer that concludes with a visit to Normandy on D-Day. I’m so pleased she stopped in at Bacon today.


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Top image: from Wake-upworld.com

Images of Johnson and Shetterly from NPR article:  https://www.npr.org/2016/09/25/495179824/hidden-figures-how-black-women-did-the-math-that-put-men-on-the-moon

Image of West Computing lab from movie:  https://www.insidescience.org/news/exploring-math-hidden-figures

Image of Mary Jackson:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-story-of-nasas-real-ldquo-hidden-figures-rdquo/

Image of plane:  https://www.complex.com/sports/2012/01/the-10-deadliest-planes-of-world-war-ii/5

Image of Katherine Johnson:  https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-loved-to-count

Image of John Glenn:  https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2009.html



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