NASA’s Hidden Pioneers

In honor of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson's 100th birthday, our Review of the Week revisits the book that helped her story into the limelight.

Hidden figures : the American dream and the untold story of the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race

Lee Shetterly, Margot. W. Morrow, 2016
346p bibl index, 9780062363596 $27.99, 9780062363619

In her debut book, Shetterly profoundly profiles four female African American employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center. Prior to its widespread adoption of electronic computers, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) employed “human computers” (all women) to perform calculations assigned by engineers (all men). Due to their location on the Langley campus, the African American women computers (the group included Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden) were known as the “West Computers.” These women were segregated from other offices until the pivotal year of 1958, when NACA became NASA. Shetterly expertly details the women’s struggles against organizational segregation and discrimination, most notably the inroads that the West Computers made in obtaining assignments that had previously been limited to male or white employees, including editorial board participation and authorship of technical reports used for Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs. Shetterly contrasts these events with desegregation legislation opposition and the resulting closing of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Hampton, Virginia (home of Langley). The overarching theme is that whether at NASA or nationally, the potential of US success was negatively impacted by segregation. This work is an important assessment of women’s roles in the sciences and US segregation.

Summing Up: Essential. All readers.
Reviewer: K. D. Winward, Central College
Subject: Science & Technology – History of Science & Technology
Choice Issue: Apr 2017