'Hidden Figures': How Black Women Did The Math That Put Men On The Moon

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Many Americans are familiar with the astronaut heroes of the 20th century space race — names like Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong. But who did the calculations that would successfully land these men on the moon?

Several of the NASA researchers who made space flight possible were women. Among them were black women who played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well.

"When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a 'colored girls' bathroom and a table for the 'colored' computers," author Margot Lee Shetterly tells NPR's Michel Martin.

Shetterly, a Hampton, Va., native and daughter of a former Langley scientist, tells the story of these women in the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book has already been adapted for the big screen; the film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae premieres in January.


Interview Highlights

On the important work that took place at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Every time you go to an airport and get on a plane, you are basically taking advantage of the work that was done at Langley. Between World War I and World War II, they did just tremendous amount of fundamental research into basically making airplanes safer, making them more stable ... making them faster and turning them into the technology that is as ubiquitous as it is today.

On the many African-Americans who found opportunities at Langley, including her own father

One of the things that was true about Hampton Road is it's a defense community. There's an Air Force base, there are several Army bases, Coast Guard center, shipyards; so it's a huge place in terms of the defense industrial complex. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of people actually — and among them many African-American — migrated to the Hampton Roads area because of the job boom that was happening. It was a place where you could get stable war jobs.

On whether she was aware, as a child, of the vital work black women were doing at Langley

I knew that many of them worked at NASA. I didn't know exactly what they did. I didn't know why they had started working there. I didn't know or really had questioned why there were so many women of all backgrounds working there until I started working on this book, you know. And it was like a window opened. And all of a sudden, I started looking at not just those women, but my hometown in a very different way.

On Katherine Johnson being the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white

She started working at Langley in 1953. ... Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth. One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn's flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

You know, the Russians had got a real head-start into space; America was playing catch-up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.

But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson — he actually asked "the girl"; all of the women working at that time were referred to as "girls."

And he said: Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they're good, you know, I'm good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.

On why this story is just being told now

That is the one question that everybody asks me about. ... It's something that I really kind of struggle with, because on the one hand, a lot of people did know the story.

In Hampton, Va. — I was just in Hampton yesterday and was talking to a lot of different people, and they were like, "Well, we did know these women, and we knew they worked there and they were all very modest."

If you asked Katherine Johnson how did it feel to be a trailblazer and do this very high-pressure, groundbreaking work, you know, just as often she'd say, "I was just doing my job."

And I think a lot of the women, period, felt that. They had a lot of different identities in addition to being professional mathematicians at NASA. They were mothers, they were wives, they were people who were active in their church, in their community. So this was only one aspect of their identity.

On computing being "women's work"

It was "women's work." I mean the engineers were the men and the women were the mathematicians or the computers. The men designed the research and did the manly stuff and the women did the calculations, you know, at the behest of the engineers.

And so, I think that it really does have to do with us over the course of time sort of not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.

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A previous version of this story had Margot Lee Shetterly's name misspelled as Shetterley in the text and a photo caption.

Also, in the audio, as in a previous Web version, the actress Octavia Spencer is misidentified as Octavia Butler.