Katherine Johnson is one hundred years old as of this writing. Hidden Figures tells her story, as well as that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three of the African-American women who were known as computers in the organization that is known today as the National Aerospace Administration (NASA). Their skills as mathematicians were needed to help design and build the airplanes that the U.S. needed to fight in World War II and the Korean conflict. Later the aircraft and rockets they helped design enabled the U.S. to enter and compete successfully in the space race, from the flight of the first Mercury capsule to the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon and returned them safely to earth.
A movie with the same title was released in 2016. The movie dramatizes the events of several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the climax coming as Katherine Johnson is asked to check once more the calculations for the trajectory that would put John Glenn into orbit. I saw the movie during its original run in the theaters. It’s a great movie to watch with children or grandchildren.
Margot Lee Shetterly tells Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s stories, and many others, with admiration that approaches but doesn’t cross over into hagiography. Her writing is clean, polished, and unpretentious. I must admit that, having seen the movie first, I was expecting a bit more drama, and it took me a few pages to adjust to the the author’s pace. By the end, though, I was sorry not to have any more of the story to read (so I read the acknowledgments).
In telling the stories of these women, Margot Lee Shetterly also tells the story of segregation and the mistreatment of blacks in the U.S. in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I can’t help wondering how many more Katherine Johnsons, Dorothy Vaughans, and Mary Jacksons there were in Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere who would have made equal or greater contributions to many fields of knowledge were it not for the lack of opportunity, resources, and respect they encountered.
The contribution of these women has been acknowledged as the U.S. has moved through the Civil Rights era. In September 2017 NASA named a new facility the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Unfortunately, opportunities and rewards for women and people of color still lag behind those available for white men. I hope that Hidden Figures—a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding, and thought-provoking book—has started some conversations and actions that will help to close the remaining gaps.
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