WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Book, film focus on African-American women and the space race

Posted November 10

Number crunchers have always been in great demand at NASA and its predecessors. As America was being drawn into World War II, the demand was even greater for mathematicians to serve as human computers at the then National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va.

With computing machinery in its infancy, it was human computers that provided the calculations for research which made early aircraft safer, faster and more aerodynamic. Many of those human calculators were African-American women. Women like research mathematician Katherine G. Johnson.

Johnson was born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. While most African-Americans at the time rarely completed the 8th grade, Johnson graduated high school at age 14, and college at 18. In 1953, she was hired by NACA, earning $2000 as a “computer.”

Johnson and many other women like her played critical roles in the aerospace industry, quickly earning a reputation for their accuracy. Even as NASA introduced machines to the Mercury program, astronaut John Glen insisted that Johnson double check automated calculations with slide rules and graph paper.

Despite the high level of trust these woman earned in their work, this was still the era of Jim Crow laws in the segregated South. They ate in segregated cafeterias and worked in a segregated office a mile from segregated restroom facilities.

The story of these women is very personal to Margot Lee Shetterly, Author of the book “Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped the United States Win the Space Race”. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Va., the daughter of a climate scientist working at Langley.

“I’d visit my father at work and see these woman, many of them African-American, working alongside the men. From an early age I had this concept that black people worked at NASA too.” Shetterly said in an interview before delivering a talk at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill.

“The more I dug into the story, I realized that I had no idea how [incredible it is].”

While race and gender is a significant part of the story, Shetterly is quick to describe her book as American history, purposely blurring the lines.

“And why not?” Shetterly asks, “These women’s lives intersected the space race, the cold war, World War II. It’s only natural for me to give them this protagonist position in this great American sweep of history.

A film based on the book is scheduled for limited release on Christmas day with wider release in January. Even the movie’s screenwriter, Allison Schroeder shares a NASA family history with Shetterly. Her father was an engineer who worked on the Mercury capsule and her grandmother worked as a (white) computer at Langley.

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