Margot Lee Shetterly and NASA’s Black Women ‘Human Computers’ in NYT
Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong are the heroes of the Space Race, but soon a less-heralded, equally deserving set of names will join them: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Yes, all three are women. They’re also African-American—and the subjects of Margot Lee Shetterly’s upcoming book, Hidden Figures. And this week, both The New York Times and CBS This Morning help bring Shetterly’s story to life.
In the 50s and 60s, when America’s space program was in full swing, roles needed filling behind the scenes. There were numbers to crunch, complex equations to model, trajectories to calculate. And when labor shortages opened the door, women and African-Americans stepped in, becoming known as NASA’s ‘human computers.’
In Hampton, Virginia, home of NASA’s Langley Research Center, Margot Lee Shetterly grew up surrounded by black scientists, engineers, and professors—far from the American norm. And when her father, one such scientist, told her of the women mathematicians who were crucial to NASA’s heyday, she knew that the stories merited sharing. Katherine Johnson, for one, was a certified savant—in high school by age 10 and finished college by 18. Just last year, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor (“For other women,” Shetterly says, quoted in the NYT, Johnson “was a revelation”).
Johnson’s is a story of science, innovation, and shattering norms—and one captured flawlessly by Shetterly’s new book Hidden Figures (out September 6 from William Morrow/HarperCollins). It’s also soon to be a film: the big screen version of Hidden Figures, which sees limited showing on Christmas and a full theatrical release on January 13, 2017, stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Kevin Costner, and is already drumming up plenty of Oscar buzz.
As Hidden Figures gains traction, so does the story of NASA’s human computers. On today’s edition of CBS This Morning, the station interviewed Shetterly as part of a fascinating five-minute Hidden Figures feature (watch below!). “It’s not a ‘first’ or an ‘only’ story,” said Shetterly. “It’s the story of a group of women who were given a chance, and who performed, and who opened doors for the women who came behind them.” Here’s hoping there are many more.