Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

What a Difference a Day Makes – Summary

In chapter 16 of Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly describes the significant historical shift that occurs as the Soviet Union launches the Sputnik satellite into space. This event leaves many Americans feeling frustrated, scared, and furious, as they believe that it marks the end of American global dominance. However, Katherine, one of the African American women working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), sees this as an opportunity for a new beginning.

Katherine believes that the successful launch of Sputnik signals the start of a new revolution in engineering. With the NACA already having achieved aerial dominance and the development of supersonic military aircraft, Katherine sees space travel as the next logical step. She is excited to use her talents and potential to push American flight to its next stage.

Historically, the NACA had avoided the issue of space due to congressional pressure to avoid spending money on “science fiction” dreams of manned spaceflight. The technical library carried very few books on spaceflight. Despite this, the Langley engineers enjoyed imagining the trajectories of missile bodies and rocket engines as they enter space. With Sputnik’s launch, the engineers now have full reign to exercise their creativity. The Flight Research Division works with the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) to develop rockets, and Katherine is eager to take part in this exciting new venture.

Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan, another African American woman who had worked as the supervisor of the West Area computing group, finds herself in a difficult position. The computing group had been instrumental in integrating the NACA, but now that the group has been disbanded and each research team manages its own computers, Dorothy struggles to find a new job. She has not developed a specialized skill or area of research expertise, and so she remains in an office at the building that formerly housed the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel. She still presides over the West Area computers, but their presence is no longer central to the NACA’s performance.

However, Dorothy’s work with the West Area computers has had a significant impact on the NACA. They helped to normalize the presence of black mathematicians and engineers at company-wide functions and picnics, fostering a sense of community that will allow black professionals to thrive there in the years to come. This work happens in the context of the broader struggle for civil rights, with figures such as A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks fighting to make segregation illegal.

As the government seeks to win over countries repelled by the U.S.’s attitude towards racial relations, the NACA’s chief legal counsel writes in 1956 that the NACA should put an end to the double-standard regarding race that exists within the United States. In 1958, the government fuses the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its other military agencies together to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. NASA will be the highly visible successor to the NACA, with everything it does being made public to the American people and the world.

As the NACA expands greatly in size, with its number of research centers and employees increasing almost exponentially, the West Area Computers Unit is dissolved. The women left behind, including Dorothy Vaughan, have to find a new place for themselves. This marks the beginning of modern space technology as we know it now, and with this new age comes the end of an old era, which Dorothy struggled to help integrate so that this one could be born.

Overall, this chapter highlights the significant changes occurring at the NACA during the Space Race era. It shows how the historical struggles for civil rights intersected with technological innovation and how these changes affected the lives of the African American women who played a crucial role in advancing America’s aerospace industry.

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Questions

How does Sputnik create interest in U.S. participation in the space race?

When Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957, Americans were scared and amazed. They wondered how a country like Russia, which they thought was not advanced, could beat them to it. People were worried that Sputnik was spying on the US or could lead to the end of America’s power. The US had actually been working on space technology, and they had planned to launch the first satellite as part of a global science project, but Sputnik made them hurry up. The US eventually launched two satellites, Explorer I and Project Vanguard, and Langley engineers saw space research as a new opportunity. They realized that the technology they had developed for high-speed flight research could also be applied to space vehicles.

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How does NACA become NASA? Why is the change deemed necessary?

The NACA was a government agency that had many smart engineers, but it was not well-known or popular. When the US government decided to combine all of the country’s different space programs, they chose to use the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) as the main organization. They also added more programs to the NACA and changed its name to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. The new NASA had a bigger and more important mission than the old NACA, which meant that it would be watched more closely by people all over the world. NASA would have to be very careful and do everything perfectly because any mistakes would be seen by everyone. Even though NASA was still located at the same place as the NACA, the way people felt about it and the amount of attention it received was very different.

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What kind of technological advancements occur as this space race begins to heat up?

As the Space Race began to heat up, the technological advancements that occurred were:

  1. The engineers from PARD (Pilotless Aircraft Research Division) and the Flight Research Division moved to center stage and played a crucial role in developing space technology.
  2. The Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, Building 1251, which came online in 1955, was one of the busiest hubs of the center, testing nearly every supersonic airplane, missile, and spacecraft that saw the light of day over the next two decades.
  3. As the laboratory embraced the onset of the space age, the demand for specialization among professionals increased, making the idea of a central computing pool redundant.
  4. The herculean task of safely navigating the heavens was divided into myriad smaller tasks, tests, parts, and people.
  5. Expertise in a subfield was the key to a successful career as an engineer, and expertise was becoming a necessity for mathematicians and computers as well.

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What does the change to NASA do for the employees of West Computing?

The change to NASA officially ended segregation at Langley and dissolved the West Area Computers Unit, where the black female mathematicians worked. As a result, the former West Computers had to find new jobs and could no longer work together in the same room. Dorothy Vaughan, who had been leading the section, was proud of her contribution to breaking down racial segregation and proving that women’s minds were the analytical equal of their male counterparts. However, she was also disappointed that her career as a manager came to an end. Dorothy was now just one of the girls, starting anew at NASA.

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What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’?

The title of the chapter, ‘What a Difference a Day Makes,’ refers to the significant shift that occurred with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. The event caused Americans to feel frustrated, scared, and fearful of losing their global dominance. However, Katherine sees it as a new beginning for the NACA, as the organization shifts its focus to space travel and the development of rockets. The chapter shows how this new era brings about technological innovation and progress, but it also highlights the slow and difficult process of desegregation and the ongoing struggles faced by women and people of color in the workplace. Ultimately, the chapter demonstrates how a single event can change the course of history and how individuals can rise to meet the challenges that come with it.

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