“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly is a non-fiction book that tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. The prologue sets the stage for the rest of the book.
The author visits her parents in Virginia with her husband after Christmas in 2010. They tour the town in a minivan and spend time with family and friends. The author reflects on her hometown and how her identity is tied to it, despite initially viewing it as a mere launching pad. They explore local attractions and enjoy food from hole-in-the-wall joints.
The chapter then describes the author’s memories of visiting her father’s workplace, NASA’s Langley Research Center, as a child. Many of the employees were African American, including her father and several of his family members and friends. The author notes that, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, she believed it was natural for black people to work in science, math, and engineering, but her father faced segregation and resistance to pursuing his chosen career path. The text also mentions several notable African American women who worked at NASA, including mathematicians Kathryn Peddrew, Ophelia Taylor, Sue Wilder, and Katherine Johnson, who calculated launch windows for the first astronauts.
The author’s father, an African American, defied his grandfather’s fears and pursued a career in engineering at NASA, where African Americans were rare in the 1960s and 1970s. Growing up, the author took for granted the opportunities afforded to her family by her father’s work at NASA, including access to the middle class and social events. Later, the author became curious about the history of African Americans at NASA and interviewed former employees, including Mrs. Land, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, about their experiences of segregation and perseverance in their careers.
The author writes about the black women who worked as mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, despite the challenges of segregation. She explains that these women’s paths set the stage for her own career and that their stories help to provide unexpected connections and insights to modern life. While researching, she discovered the significant contributions made by white women who worked as human computers at Langley but were hardly recognized. The author has identified almost fifty black women who worked at Langley and believes that more names can be found with additional research. The author suggests that the number of women employed as human computers at Langley may have topped one thousand.
Shetterly felt that the stakes were high since the topic was absent from history books. She had to apply analytical reasoning to her research to document their work, which was a revelation. The author became obsessed with proving their existence and talent, and wanted them to have the grand narrative they deserved, as protagonists of the American epic, not just because they were black or women.
In the end, Shetterly reflects on the changes in her hometown of Hampton, which was once known as “Spacetown USA” due to its role in the space program. Today, the town is much like any other suburban city in America, and the memory of its contributions to space exploration has faded. However, the author highlights the important role that the West Computers, a group of black female mathematicians, played in helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology. Before the civil rights revolution and the space program, these women were carving out a place for themselves in a field dominated by white men, and their contributions deserve to be recognized as part of the American epic.