Hidden Figures

Title:                      Hidden Figures

Author:                 Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016). Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. New York, NY: William Morrow

LCCN:    2016021050

QA27.5 .L44 2016


  • Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world — and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.


  • Setting the scene — A door opens — Mobilization — A new Beginning — The double V — The “colored” computers — War birds — The duration — Breaking barriers — No limits — The area rule — An exceptional mind — Turbulence — Progress — Young, gifted, and black — What a difference a day makes — Writing the textbook on space — With all deliberate speed — Model behavior — Degrees of freedom — Out of the past, the future — America is for everybody — One small step.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • African American women–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Space race–Juvenile literature.
  • Women mathematicians–United States–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Employees.
  • African American mathematicians.
  • African American women.
  • Space race.
  • Women mathematicians.
  • United States.

Date Posted:      December 7, 2017

Reviewed by Cara Buckley[1]

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionize air flight and put Americans on the moon, Margot Lee Shetterly had a pretty fixed idea of what scientists looked like: They were middle class, African-American and worked at NASA, like her dad.

It would be years before she learned that this was far from the American norm. And that many women in her hometown defied convention, too, by having vibrant, and by most standards, unusual careers.

Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Ms. Shetterly’s first book, Hidden Figures. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, was scheduled for a year-end [2016] release and set for an Oscars run. The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Ms. Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014, and well before she started writing the book in earnest, a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn.

“The thrilling thing to me about the book, and the movie, is this is an American story that we’re getting to see through the faces of these women,” Ms. Shetterly said during a recent visit to Hampton, which sits on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, surrounded by aquamarine waters and Navy ships. “It’s just as American a story as if it were John Glenn or Alan Shepard telling it.”

Ms. Shetterly happened upon the idea for the book in 2010, when she and her husband, Aran Shetterly, then living in Mexico, were visiting her parents here. The couple and Ms. Shetterly’s father were driving around in his minivan when he mentioned, very casually, that one of Ms. Shetterly’s former Sunday school teachers had worked as a mathematician at NASA, and that another woman she knew calculated rocket trajectories for famous astronauts.

Ms. Shetterly remembers her husband perking up and asking why he had never heard this tale before. “I knew women who worked at NASA as mathematicians and engineers,” Ms. Shetterly said, “but it took someone from the outside saying, ‘Wait a minute’ for me to see the story there.”

(A book on a similar topic, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls[2], about women working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the ’40s and ’50s, was published in April.)

Two of the women she would focus on are still living in the area. Christine Darden, now 73 and retired, had worked her way out of NASA’s computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms. Katherine Johnson, who recently turned 98, lives in a retirement home with her husband of 57 years, James A. Johnson, and is enjoying a recent surge of fame. She calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, and last year President Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work.

Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson still socialize, and on a recent summer day, made meltingly hot by a heat wave, met to play bridge at Mrs. Johnson’s apartment. (Mrs. Johnson and her partner won.) Ms. Shetterly was visiting too, and presented both women with an early copy of her book. “Fantastic,” Mrs. Darden said, as Mrs. Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.

Yet asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Ms. Henson, in the starring role, Mrs. Johnson became solemn. (Mrs. Darden is not portrayed onscreen, as the film focuses on the years preceding her arrival at NASA.)

“I shudder,” Mrs. Johnson said. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts, and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. “I was never aggressive,” Mrs. Johnson said.

Ms. Shetterly reminded Mrs. Johnson of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. “You took matters in your own hands,” Ms. Shetterly said. “For other women, it was a revelation.”

Ms. Johnson said: “Well, I don’t ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, ‘Is there a law?’ And he said, ‘Let her go.’ It was easier than arguing.”

Listening in, one of Mrs. Johnson’s health aides chuckled. “Yep,” he said, “That’s the Katherine Johnson I know.”

Though outwardly their stories are remarkable, both Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson remained matter-of-fact when describing their careers, an attitude that seems to have prevailed among their peers. Ann Hammond, whose mother, Dorothy Vaughan, was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Mrs. Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98, and is played in the film by Octavia Spencer.

“My mother would’ve probably said, ‘I was just doing my job,’” Ms. Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.

But what jobs they were. While military budget cuts and sequestration have hurt the economy here in recent decades, some 75 years ago the hungry wartime machine needed manpower, and womanpower, to fill its depleted ranks. This helped open the door for black female mathematicians, who were recruited through job bulletin boards and newspaper ads. Their job title? “Colored computers.”

Mrs. Johnson, a math savant, graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University at 18, and heard about the job through a family connection. Mrs. Darden, who went to college at Hampton Institute and earned a master’s degree in math at Virginia State College, was hired to be a NASA data analyst out of graduate school in 1967, and went on to become an aerospace engineer.

The military boom lasted for decades, allowing the women and their families to have what Ms. Hammond described as a good life, despite enduring the indignities of segregation in the early years—working, eating and using restrooms apart from white colleagues.

Ms. Shetterly discovered in her research that the space agency’s leaders were well aware of the negative effects of segregation. As Virginia began vigorously fighting public school desegregation in 1956, one higher up worried about the face that the United States, with its roiling racial problems, was presenting to the world, using words that still have resonance today.

“In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country,” NACA’s chief counsel, Paul Dembling, wrote in a file memo that year. Two years later, the segregated computing pool was disbanded.

Through it all, by most accounts, the black women at NASA held their heads high.

“Her whole life, my mother never felt superior and never felt less than anybody else,” said Joylette Hylick, the eldest of Mrs. Johnson’s three daughters. “She didn’t let it get in her way.”

[1] Cara Buckley. A version of this article appears in print in The New York Times on September 6, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Space Race Math Whizzes Hidden From History”.

[2] Holt, Nathalia (2016). Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to The Moon to Mars. New York: Little, Brown and Company

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