I thought I knew a lot about the history of America’s race against the Soviet Union to dominate the realm of space. Like many of my generation, I followed our forays into the heavens with as avidly as many of my friends tracked sports statistics. After reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, though, I realize that I only knew a part of that story.
With men away fighting the Axis during World War II, American women suddenly found themselves able to work in occupations formerly closed to them. One of the places that opened its doors to women was the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The most compelling part of that story, and one that I was completely ignorant of, was the fact that among the women who were allowed to pass through doors was a group of black women, outstanding mathematicians, who had been teachers in segregated schools. Women like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, ChristineDarden, and Kathaleen Land, who worked as human ‘computers’ in NACA’s segregated West Computer Section at Langley Field in southeastern Virginia.
Hired beginning in 1943 to do manual computations for the program to ensure American flight supremacy in World War II, and working with the nascent space program after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, these women endured segregated working conditions, and discrimination based on both their race and gender, making critical contributions to every element of our eventual victory in the space race, from John Glenn’s first orbital flight to the lunar landing.
Shetterly, a native of the Hampton area of Virginia, offers a straight forward, but compelling, picture of these women and their struggles to prove that they were as capable as any man, in some cases, even more capable, as they encountered and overcome the social and legal barriers placed in their paths.
This is a piece of American history that should be mandatory reading for every American, black or white, male or female. Not only does it bring to light an important part of our history that has remained relatively unseen for decades, but it is a compelling story of the strength of the human will that is a beacon of hope in our current age of political divisiveness and discord.
I received this book as a gift, and it’s one that I will share with my grandchildren. Not just to show them what the past was like, but as a guide to their future.
I give this fascinating book five stars.