The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union would have never been possible with HBCU alumnae. Women, trained as mathematicians, integrated NASA's forerunner National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and worked in segregated spaces within the organization's Langley, Virginia campus. While this story was never really a secret within NASA, it took Margot Shetterly to tell the story to the entire world.
Her book, Hidden Figures, published in 2016, details the three women featured in the movie as well as the story of Hampton alum Christine Darden who followed in the women's footsteps. What isn't noted in the movie is that all three are alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Mary Jackson of Hampton Institute (now University), Katherine Johnson of West Virginia State and Dorothy Vaughan of Wilberforce were part of a team of women who worked as "colored computers" tucked into a tiny segregated corner of Langley and used their intellect to literally help the country soar. Shetterly grew up in the shadows of women like this and knew their story deserved to be told.
Katherine Johnson, at age 98, is the only living member of the three featured in the film. Her calculations were necessary to get John Glenn into space and, more importantly, safely back. Dorothy Vaughn died in 2008, Mary Jackson in 2005. But now, thanks to Shetterly they are becoming household names. The movie opened Christmas day in select theatres and across the country January 6, becoming the number one movie in the country its opening weekend.
And be sure to check out The Human Computer Project, a 'virtual museum' started by Shetterly "to tell the stories of the pioneering women [black and white] who worked as mathematicians and 'computers' at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and NASA in the early days of aeronautics and the American space program." Shetterly's work makes an excellent companion to the book, "We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program" by Richard Paul, which was published in 2015.
(photo credit: William Morrow/Aran Shetterly)