Xconomy Bookclub: “Hidden Figures” and the Brains Behind Space Flight

Xconomy Texas — 

Part of the difficulty in attracting a diverse set of people to technology jobs is a chicken-and-egg problem. Women and under-represented minorities don’t often see themselves in those positions, which makes it less likely they would pursue them.

Sometimes examples exist in plain sight, but we don’t realize the importance of them until later. That happened to author Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, VA, surrounded by a community of educated and professional African Americans. It was “simply the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine,” she writes in the book. “I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

Clearly, she realized how wrong those assumptions were, and that revelation became the book “Hidden Figures,” telling the story of the “West Computers,” a group of black women who helped build up the nation’s aeronautics industry in the years following World War II. The movie version starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer opens nationwide Thursday.

“Hidden Figures” focuses on the lives and work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden whose brainpower helped build the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field into the modern NASA center of today. The mathematicians started out as “human computers,” doing the research and calculations needed by the male engineers pursuing space flight and other projects.

In preparing for his 1962 launch to orbit, astronaut John Glenn wanted Johnson to double-check the electronic computer’s calculations. “If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go,” Shetterly quotes Glenn saying.

By the 1970s, however, technological advances made these human computers obsolete and NASA eliminated the positions.

Shetterly weaves the women’s professional and personal stories around the broader context of racial discrimination prevalent in society—and the growing movement to end those abuses. She’s done her homework, citing all manner of memos, wedding announcements, newsletters, and personal interviews to learn more about the women’s work … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2