John Glenn, the first American in space and (years later) the oldest man to have gone to space, passed away this month, to much-deserved fanfare. His determination, ambition, and insatiable curiosity represented the best aspects of the American spirit. While Glenn, with his charismatic smile and patience with the press, was the face of NASA’s space program, his accomplishments stood on a foundation laid by thousands of engineers and mathematicians at NASA.
In her book Hidden Figures (released as a motion picture in early January), Margot Lee Shetterly chronicles the lives of Katherine Johnson and other black female ‘’computers’’ (literally, people who computed things) responsible for precisely calculating the equations necessary to catapult a man into space. The book is a well-researched nonfiction imbued with a narrative tone from Shetterly, who knew many of the computers personally as fellow church congregants and neighbors before she unearthed the details of their groundbreaking careers. The book is structured roughly chronologically, detailing the path many black women took to advance their newfound careers in mathematics from WWII through to the 1970s.
At the time of their work, space was an elusive, uncharted territory. As an example of the terrifying unknowns, NASA doctors were uncertain about the strain acceleration would put on the eyeballs. No one was more aware of the pressures than Glenn, but with characteristic calmness, Glenn said before the flight, “Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good," he told them, "I’m ready to go.”
The work of Johnson and the other computers was astounding in its own right. Shetterly writes that she wanted to tell the story of the Negro women computers at NASA, not because it was a good story about women, or even a good story about black women, but because it was a good story that embodied some of the best parts of America.
Johnson's story weaves throughout the book in well-researched, moving detail. Readers cheer for Katherine at each turn: as she lands a succession of summer jobs, is nominated for a place as a graduate student in mathematics at West Virginia, leaves academia for domestic life in a surprise twist, and ultimately finds an outlet for her math prowess at NASA.
For any women facing difficult choices about balancing family and work, reading about (or watching on the big screen) women who made sacrifices for both—and at a time when external societal pressures were certainly stacked against them—is an inspiration. One of the book’s protagonists, Dorothy Vaughan, endures a hectic schedule that involves working weekdays in a town and only seeing her family on weekends. She ultimately decides to rent an apartment near NACA (the forerunner of NASA) headquarters to find a better neighborhood for her children, determined to improve the future for her family. In a trailer for the new film, we see (presumably Dorothy’s) children in bed telling their mom “you’ve been gone 300 hours.” These women loved their families, and they loved their jobs. Dorothy's ambition transformed her job as a temporary employee during WWII to a promotion as one of the first black female management heads of NACA, to a contributor to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program that pioneered satellite technology.
Math geniuses aren’t born in a vacuum, and Hidden Figures recognizes this by delving into the personal motivations for their work. Another of NACA’s computers, Mary Jackson, served with the Girl Scouts where she “went out of her way to provide them with the kinds of experiences that would expand their understanding of what was possible in their lives.” Another computer wielded her mathematical sensibilities to propel her son to victory designing a boxcar—a first for a black family. Johnson drew support from her father, carrying his mantra—“You’re no better than anyone else and no one is better than you”—into her high-pressure workplace with spirit and characteristic grace.
The tenacity of these women enabled them to face tremendous challenges both in and outside NACA. The work itself was grueling, mind-numbing work, with the mounting pressures from WWII, and later the space race, leaving literally no margin for error. The women computers were the backbone of this work, but they dealt with the compounding expectations of being the only black women in what was a white man’s game. In an interview with a reporter, one computer was was asked, “Do you believe that women working with men have to think like a man, work like a dog, and act like a lady?” “Yes, I do,” said Lee, the computer in question. While new male engineers were mentored in the male-only social encounters with after-work cigars, “women had to be a scythe” with their intellect.
A particularly cutting piece from the workplace newsletter The Air Scoop sums the issue up rather succinctly: “Woe unto thee if they shall make thee a computer. For the Project Engineer will taketh credit for whatsoever thou doth that is clever and full of glory. But if he slippeth up, and maketh a wrong calculation... of any kind whatsoever, he shall lay the mistake at thy door when he is called to account and he shall say, ‘What can you expect from girl computers anyway?'”
The women pushed back against this, fighting to become engineers. Johnson’s involvement at the center of command for flights like Glenn’s came about because she simply wouldn’t take being excluded from pivotal meetings when her calculations were key to the success of the mission. She upset the established process that men give the orders and women demurely carry out the computations to great effect.
In addition to the garden variety sexism in the workplace, the culture was compounded by pervasive racism. Black NACA employees were tacitly respected, but they were still subject to the total inanity of segregated cafeteria settings, housing, and bathrooms. In a scathing indictment of the racism that prevailed following WWII, Shetterly notes “the restaurants that refused to serve Dorothy Vaughan [NACA computer] had no problem waiting on Germans from the prisoner-of-war camp housed in a detention facility.” Vaughan and her colleagues waged an insistent war against injustice (the cafeteria sign “Blacks Only” went missing regularly), but the most impressive ways they combatted injustice was in their day-to-day, diligent, routinely error-free work and unflappable spirits.
With Hidden Figures, readers or watchers gradually sense that that these women simply didn’t know the definition of the word obstacle. High stakes pressure, impossible commutes, rampant sexism, blatant racism: nothing could deter them from their calling to mathematics. They worked for their nation, but they also worked for their families, for their sisters and their colleagues as they worked to create a future where the face of mathematicians could be female and black. Altogether, the story of Hidden Figures serves to remind modern women the truth about obstacles: They are meant to be overcome.
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox