'Hidden Figures': How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon | KUOW News and Information

'Hidden Figures': How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon

Sep 26, 2016
Originally published on September 26, 2016 10:16 am

Many Americans are familiar with the astronaut heroes of the 20th century space race — names like Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong. But who did the calculations that would successfully land these men on the moon?

Several of the NASA researchers who made space flight possible were women. Among them were black women who played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well.

"When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a 'colored girls' bathroom and a table for the 'colored' computers," author Margot Lee Shetterly tells NPR's Michel Martin.

Shetterly, a Hampton, Va., native and daughter of a former Langley scientist, tells the story of these women in the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book has already been adapted for the big screen; the film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae premieres in January.


Interview Highlights

On the important work that took place at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Every time you go to an airport and get on a plane, you are basically taking advantage of the work that was done at Langley. Between World War I and World War II, they did just tremendous amount of fundamental research into basically making airplanes safer, making them more stable ... making them faster and turning them into the technology that is as ubiquitous as it is today.

On the many African-Americans who found opportunities at Langley, including her own father

One of the things that was true about Hampton Road is it's a defense community. There's an Air Force base, there are several Army bases, Coast Guard center, shipyards; so it's a huge place in terms of the defense industrial complex. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of people actually — and among them many African-American — migrated to the Hampton Roads area because of the job boom that was happening. It was a place where you could get stable war jobs.

On whether she was aware, as a child, of the vital work black women were doing at Langley

I knew that many of them worked at NASA. I didn't know exactly what they did. I didn't know why they had started working there. I didn't know or really had questioned why there were so many women of all backgrounds working there until I started working on this book, you know. And it was like a window opened. And all of a sudden, I started looking at not just those women, but my hometown in a very different way.

On Katherine Johnson being the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white

She started working at Langley in 1953. ... Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth. One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn's flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

You know, the Russians had got a real head-start into space; America was playing catch-up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.

But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson — he actually asked "the girl"; all of the women working at that time were referred to as "girls."

And he said: Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they're good, you know, I'm good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

On why this story is just being told now

That is the one question that everybody asks me about. ... It's something that I really kind of struggle with, because on the one hand, a lot of people did know the story.

In Hampton, Va. — I was just in Hampton yesterday and was talking to a lot of different people, and they were like, "Well, we did know these women, and we knew they worked there and they were all very modest."

If you asked Katherine Johnson how did it feel to be a trailblazer and do this very high-pressure, groundbreaking work, you know, just as often she'd say, "I was just doing my job."

And I think a lot of the women, period, felt that. They had a lot of different identities in addition to being professional mathematicians at NASA. They were mothers, they were wives, they were people who were active in their church, in their community. So this was only one aspect of their identity.

On computing being "women's work"

It was "women's work." I mean the engineers were the men and the women were the mathematicians or the computers. The men designed the research and did the manly stuff and the women did the calculations, you know, at the behest of the engineers.

And so, I think that it really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every now and again on this program we talk of remarkable stories that are hiding in plain sight, and this is another one. Now, you may be familiar with the space race where the United States and the Soviet Union competed to see which nation could soar higher and faster into outer space. You might know the names of the pioneering pilots and astronauts who steered those ships to new frontiers, names like Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong.

But what about the people who helped send those satellites to space or who developed the exact calculations that would successfully land a man on the moon? Would it shock you to know that many of the researchers who helped the technological advances that made spaceflight possible were women and they were black women who played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well?

Now, Margot Lee Shetterly, a Hampton, Va. native and daughter of a former Langley scientist, is telling those stories in a new book, "Hidden Figures: The American Dream And The Untold Story Of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race." And the story is already headed to the big screen. Margot Lee Shetterly joins us now from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Va. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: Michel, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, the book is set at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. It's the oldest NASA field center, for people who don't know. Tell us about some of the important work that took place at Langley.

SHETTERLY: Sure. Well, every time you go to an airport and get on a plane, you are basically taking advantage of the work that was done at Langley. Between the wars, between World War I and World War II, they did just tremendous amount of fundamental research into basically making airplanes safer, making them more stable, making them faster and turning them into the technology that is as ubiquitous as it is today.

MARTIN: Now, you were born in Hampton. Your dad was a scientist at Langley. And in the book, you write, (reading) as a child, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that's just what black folks did. You know, to that end, like, five of your father's seven siblings were engineers or in technology. Your next-door neighbor was a physics professor. How was it that so many African-Americans got opportunities at Langley? Why is it that so many people were there?

SHETTERLY: Well, one of the things that's true about Hampton Roads - it's a defense community. There's an air force base, there are several army bases, a Coast Guard center, shipyards. So it's a huge place in terms of the defense industrial complex. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of people actually - and among them many African-Americans - migrated to the Hampton Roads area because of the job boom that was happening. I mean, it was a place where you could get stable war jobs.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you know of the vital work that these women did?

SHETTERLY: I knew that many of them worked at NASA. I didn't know exactly what they did. I didn't know why they had started working there. I didn't know or really had questioned why there were so many women of all backgrounds working there until I started working on this book, you know? And it was like a window opened. And all of a sudden, you know, I started looking at not just those women but my hometown in a very different way.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book over and over again, that it wasn't just Katherine Johnson. She's the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white. And that - you make a point of saying that she very much wants other people's work to be acknowledged. But if you could just briefly tell us a little bit about Katherine Johnson?

SHETTERLY: Right. So Katherine Johnson, of all of the women, many people at this point certainly have probably heard her name. She started work at Langley in 1953. She was originally working on airplanes, as many people were. But then she was one of the people who worked on Project Mercury, which was our country's first manned space program. And Katherine Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth.

One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn's flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. You know, the Russians had gotten a real head start into space. America was playing catch up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the - you know, the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.

But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson - he actually asked the girl - you know, all of the women working at that time were referred to as girls. And he said, get the girl to do it. You know, I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer. And if she says they're good then, you know, I'm good to go, you know, as part of one of my pre-flight checklists. So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

MARTIN: Thank you for that because that really kind of sums up so much of what's remarkable about the story. I mean, you point out in the book how they were doing this incredibly important work. Truly, you could argue lifesaving work because if they were wrong, someone could die. I mean, that's just a fact, right? If their...

SHETTERLY: That's a fact.

MARTIN: ...Calculations were wrong, their - they - someone could die. But they still had segregated offices. They still had - didn't they have a segregated cafeteria? Didn't they have segregated restrooms?

SHETTERLY: They did, yes. They started out - when the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943 during World War II, it was in a segregated office with colored girls' bathroom and a table for the colored computers.

MARTIN: And not just that. I mean, I think that one of the things that you talk about is the dual nature of that experience. And in fact, I mean, it is not surprising to me that it's already being made into a film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Butler and Janelle Monae. The film is expected to be released in January. I just want to play a short clip from the trailer. This is Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's - there's so many things that are remarkable about this story, including the fact that this is your first book...

SHETTERLY: It is.

MARTIN: ...Which is incredible to me. And you're not an historian. And why do you think we don't know this story? Now, I confess to you that when I mentioned to a couple of different people that I was working on this and that I was about to have this conversation with you, a number of people said the same thing to me, which is it makes me mad. Why didn't I know this? Why am I only just finding this out? Why do you think that is?

SHETTERLY: That is such a good question. I would say that is the one question that everybody asks me about this. And, you know, it's something I really kind of struggle with because on the one hand, a lot of people did know this story in Hampton, Va. You know, I was just in Hampton yesterday and was talking to a lot of different people, and they were like, well, we did know these women. And we knew they worked there. And they were all very modest.

If you ask Katherine Johnson, how did it feel to be a trailblazer and do this very high-pressure, groundbreaking work, you know, just as often she'll say, well, I was just doing my job. And I think a lot of the women period felt that. They had a lot of different identities in addition to being professional mathematician at NASA. They were mothers. They were wives. They were people who were active in their church, in their community. So this was only one aspect of their identity.

But I think a lot of it's because it was women's work. I mean, the engineers were the men, and the women were the mathematicians or the computers. The men designed the research and did the manly stuff, and the women did the calculations, you know, at the behest of the engineers. And so I think that it really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it's taken history to get a perspective on that.

MARTIN: That was Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book "Hidden Figures." She was kind enough to join us from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Va. Margot Lee Shetterly, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHETTERLY: Michel, thank you for having me on.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, the actress Octavia Spencer is misidentified as Octavia Butler.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.