Last year, as the world was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, there was considerable interest in the stories of the 400,000 people behind-the-scenes that made that historic event possible. Unlike the Moonwalkers, they weren’t all white American men. It was around that time I first watched the Hidden Figures film, which explores the critical contributions that three Black women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) made at NASA as mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers.
The film is fun to watch and explores the racism and sexism that these women had to overcome. They entered a segregated workplace, where they had to use separate toilets and eat at different tables in the cafeteria. There’s some justifiable criticism that the film includes fictional scenes in which a fictional ‘white saviour‘ fights on behalf of the women, to give them their due. However, you could argue that without those scenes, the film wouldn’t appeal to the white audience that needs to absorb these stories and the lessons on the importance of equality they deliver.
The film is loosely based on the end of a book with the same name+, written by Black author Margot Lee Shetterly. In the book’s final few chapters, we see the three girly swots come into their own, a vital part of America’s 1960s effort to put a man on the Moon.
But the huge benefit of reading the book rather than watching the film is the earlier chapters. Margot Lee Shetterly’s father was a research scientist at NASA. He worked alongside some of the book’s characters, and Margot grew up in that community. As she explains in the Prologue, in a visit home to Hampton, Virginia in 2010, she was able to spend time talking to Kathleen Land. Shetterly knew her as a Sunday school teacher; in fact, Kathleen Land had been a mathematician, working for NASA at Langley.
Shetterly was soon talking to Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, and uncovering a story that had been hidden from view for more than half a century. Her curiosity led to her digging deeper, picking her way through phone books and photo archives to find the hidden Black women who had been part of the space race. We may never know how many there really were; by the time she had finished writing the book, Shetterly had names for nearly fifty.
Like hundreds of white women, the Hidden Figures were initially employed as “computers”, who performed complex mathematical equations and calculations by hand, with the help of rudimentary calculators. They were considered to be admin staff, the mathematical equivalent of secretaries. Although the male engineers and scientists couldn’t have done their work without the computers, the women’s names never made it onto technical reports and scientific papers. The women weren’t invited into technical meetings.
The story starts in 1943, when World War 2 is on the horizon and Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory is recruiting an army of computers, engineers and scientists. They would be working for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would become NASA at the start of the space race. NACA was developing new warplanes, and much of the work revolved around developing mathematical models of how planes would behave, and testing of physical models in gigantic wind tunnels.
The NACA’s insatiable need for talent opened the door for those previously overlooked – women and people of colour. The first Black woman we meet in the book is Dorothy Vaughan, a school teacher spending her summers working in a laundry to make ends meet. Seeing an advert for jobs at Langley, she takes the plunge, initially on a temporary contract. Women were paid less than men, and Blacks less than whites, but Langley paid better than teaching. Vaughan initially left her family behind; they joined her later as a Black, middle-class suburb developed in Hampton, Virginia. Vaughan worked in the West Area computing office, a segregated space for Black computers.
She would be joined there by Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble (who later married and became Katherine Johnson). Set against the backdrop of the war and Langley’s tireless research efforts, the book follows the lives of these three extraordinary women. They were tireless, raising families while they worked long hours. They were all active in their communities, helping to open doors for new Black colleagues and promoting the education of Black children. They lived through a period in which Virginia schools were segregated. They watched as certain sections of the white community fought tooth and nail to stop them from being integrated. They did it all while staying nicely-turned-out and keeping up middle-class appearances. They walked a tightrope, hoping to edge forward without triggering a backlash from the whites that called the shots. Just reading their stories is exhausting.
The book contains more than the three main characters, and without any pictures, I found it easy to get lost in the names. It’s a bit like listening to your parents gossip about friends and neighbours you’ve never met. Unlike the film, which distils the essence of the story into a digestible morsel, the book requires some effort and commitment from the reader. However, these remarkable and formidable women deserve our attention. It’s fascinating to read about how they grasped every opportunity that came their way and fought to be taken seriously. They were fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to make a substantial contribution to the space programme, and it’s an indictment of our times that their stories took so long to come to light.
So if you’re interested in how men came to walk on the Moon, by all means, watch the Hidden Figures film. But if you’re a space nut, you really should add the book+ to your shelf and get the real story.
+I have included links to these books for sale on Hive. If you choose to click through and make a purchase, you’ll be helping your local bookstore, and I may also receive a small commission for referring you.