“Hidden Figures,”The True Story of the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race


A new book and movie document the accomplishments of NASA’s black “human computers” whose work was at the heart of the country’s greatest battles

Melba Roy
Melba Roy led the the group human computers who tracked the Echo satellites in the 1960s. (NASA)
smithsonian.com
September 8, 2016 | Updated: December 29, 2016

As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.

Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. Her new book Hidden Figures shines light on the inner details of these women’s lives and accomplishments. The book’s film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is new open in theaters

“We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft,” she says. “Those guys have all told their stories.” Now it’s the women’s turn.

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1970s, Shetterly lived just miles away from Langley. Built in 1917, this research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) as the space race gained speed.

The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.

The first black computers didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history.

Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a
Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a “celestial training device.” (NASA)

Exactly how many women computers worked at NACA (and later NASA) over the years is still unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred but other estimates, including Shetterly’s own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.

As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her girl scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates. Her father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern and becoming a well-respected climate scientist. “They were just part of a vibrant community of people, and everybody had their jobs,” she says. “And those were their jobs. Working at NASA Langley.”

Surrounded by the West Computers and other academics, it took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude of the women’s work. “It wasn’t until my husband, who was not from Hampton, was listening to my dad talk about some of these women and the things that they have done that I realized,” she says. “That way is not necessarily the norm”

The spark of curiosity ignited, Shetterly began researching these women. Unlike the male engineers, few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. Even more problematic was that the careers of the West Computers were often more fleeting than those of the white men. Social customs of the era dictated that as soon as marriage or children arrived, these women would retire to become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only remained at Langley for a few years.

But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she discovered. “My investigation became more like an obsession,” she writes in the book. “I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.”

She scoured telephone directories, local newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names. She also chased down stray memos, obituaries, wedding announcements and more for any hint at the richness of these women’s lives. “It was a lot of connecting the dots,” she says.

“I get emails all the time from people whose grandmothers or mothers worked there,” she says. “Just today I got an email from a woman asking if I was still searching for computers. [She] had worked at Langley from July 1951 through August 1957.”

Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering; “in many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory,” Shetterly says. The researchers came from across America. Many came from parts of the country sympathetic to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, says Shetterly, and backed the progressive ideals of expanded freedoms for black citizens and women.

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

The women fought many more of these seemingly small battles, against separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings. It was these small battles and daily minutiae that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. And outside of the workplace, they faced many more problems, including segregated busses and dilapidated schools. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory that helped alleviate the shortage of housing, but the black computers were left to their own devices.

“History is the sum total of what all of us do on a daily basis,” says Shetterly. “We think of capital “H” history as being these huge figures—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King.” Even so, she explains, “you go to bed at night, you wake up the next morning, and then yesterday is history. These small actions in some ways are more important or certainly as important as the individual actions by these towering figures.”

The book and movie don’t mark the end of Shetterly’s work She continues to collect these names, hoping to eventually make the list available online. She hopes to find the many names that have been sifted out over the years and document their respective life’s work.

The few West Computers whose names have been remembered, have become nearly mythical figures—a side-effect of the few African-American names celebrated in mainstream history, Shetterly argues. She hopes her work pays tribute to these women by bringing details of their life’s work to light. “Not just mythology but the actual facts,” she says. “Because the facts are truly spectacular.”

 Image result for hidden figures nasa photos

Hidden Figures – a story hidden from that section in our history books – the space race – Jan.6


the accomplishments of NASA’s black “human computers” whose work was at the heart of the country’s greatest battles

HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson  (Taraji P. Henson)

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)

and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)

—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.

Read the book that inspired the movie: Buy Now

Director

Theodore Melfi

Screenplay by

Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly

Producers

Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Theodore Melfi

Actors

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn and Kevin Costner

on this day 2/7


jointsessioninCongress1795 – The 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

1818 – “Academician” began publication in New York City.

1877 – The first Guernsey Cattle Club was organized in New York City.

1882 – The last bareknuckle fight for the heavyweight boxing championship took place in Mississippi City.

1893 – Elisha Gray patented a machine called the telautograph. It automatically signed autographs to documents.

1913 – The Turks lost 5,000 men in a battle with the Bulgarian army in Gallipoli.

1922 – DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace offered 5,000 copies of “Reader’s Digest” magazine for the first time.

1931 – The American opera “Peter Ibbetson,” by Deems Taylor, premiered in New York City.

1936 – The U.S. Vice President’s flag was established by executive order.

1940 – “Pinocchio” world premiered at the Center Theatre in Manhattan.

1941 – The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and Frank Sinatra recorded “Everything Happens to Me.”

1943 – The U.S. government announced that shoe rationing would go into effect in two days.

1944 – During World War II, the Germans launched a counteroffensive at Anzio, Italy.

1959 – The play “The Rivalry” opened in New York City.

1962 – The U.S. government banned all Cuban imports and re-export of U.S. products to Cuba from other countries.

1966 – “Crawdaddy” magazine was published by Paul Williams for the first time.

1974 – The nation of Grenada gained independence from Britain.

1976 – Darryl Sittler (Toronto Maple Leafs) set a National Hockey League (NHL) record when he scored 10 points in a game against the Boston Bruins. He scored six goals and four assists.

1977 – Russia launched Soyuz 24.

1984 – Space shuttle astronauts Bruce McCandless II and Robert L. Stewart made the first untethered space walk.

1985 – “Sports Illustrated” released its annual swimsuit edition. It was the largest regular edition in the magazine’s history at 218 pages.

1985 – “New York, New York” became the official anthem of New York City.

1986 – Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier fled his country ending 28 years of family rule.

1991 – The Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was sworn in as Haiti’s first democratically elected president.

1999 – NASA’s Stardust space probe was launched. The mission was to return comet dust samples from comet Wild 2. The mission was completed on January 15, 2006 when the sample return capsule returned to Earth.

2000 – California‘s legislature declared that February 13 would be “Charels M. Schulz Day.”

2008 – The Space Shuttle Atlantis launched with the mission of delivering the Columbus science laboratory to the International Space Station.

Why Settlements are illegal


103

International humanitarian law is very clear that occupation must only be temporary; the Israeli settlements are in direct violation of this principle. For instance, the settlements are in breach of Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupier from transferring its own civilians into the territory it occupies. Additionally, according to Article 55 of the Hague Regulations, the occupying power’s role is to safeguard occupied properties and maintain the status quo.

As the international development organization Diakonia explains, the construction of settlements violates this article because of the major changes it inflicts upon the occupied territory. And, according to Article 43 of the Hague Regulations, the occupying power must uphold order and safety while respecting the laws of the occupied country. Yet as Diakonia also explains, the settlements actually undermine public order and violate existing laws.


See also the following pages from the B’tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) website:

hidden figures – Katherine Johnson wife,mom and NASA spaceflight Mathematician


Portrait of Katherine Johnson
Portrait of Katherine Johnson
Credits: NASA

Date of Birth: August 26, 1918
Hometown: White Sulphur Springs, WV
Education: B.S., Mathematics and French, West Virginia State College, 1937
Hired by NACA: June 1953
Retired from NASA: 1986
Actress Playing Role in Hidden Figures: Taraji P. Henson

Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of several breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Johnson’s intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in Mathematics. Katherine graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

When West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939, West Virginia State’s president Dr. John W. Davis selected Katherine and two male students as the first black students to be offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. Katherine left her teaching job, and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first session, however, she decided to leave school to start a family with her husband.  She returned to teaching when her three daughters got older, but it wasn’t until 1952 that a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Katherine and her husband, James Goble, decided to move the family to Newport News to pursue the opportunity, and Katherine began work at Langley in the summer of 1953. Just two weeks into Katherine’s tenure in the office, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, and Katherine’s temporary position soon became permanent. She spent the next four years analyzing data from flight test, and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. As she was wrapping up this work her husband died of cancer in December 1956.

The 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik changed history—and Katherine Johnson’s life. In 1957, Katherine provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel, and Katherine, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, “came along with the program” as the NACA became NASA later that year. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says. In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Biography by Margot Lee Shetterly

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