Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Outer Space – Summary

Chapter 17 of Hidden Figures tells the story of how Katherine Johnson and her colleagues at Langley Research Center were working hard to learn everything they could about space exploration. It was March 1958, and the US government wanted to make sure that Americans knew space exploration was in the best interest of everybody. They had various reasons, including national defense, global prestige, and the opportunity to expand human knowledge.

Katherine and her colleagues knew they were facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a contribution to the field of space exploration. With their knowledge of flying vehicles, they were trying to teach themselves how to build spacecraft. Despite facing significant challenges due to their race and gender, they continued to pursue their dreams and make strides in their careers.

Katherine’s intelligence and skills led to her being given the opportunity to advance her career by preparing charts and equations for space technology lectures. She even wrote a textbook for space travel in real-time, which was a remarkable achievement. However, despite her impressive work, Katherine was not allowed to attend the editorial meetings where important scientific research reports were reviewed, scrutinized, and stress-tested because she was a woman.

Langley’s research process was rigorous and demanding. The authors of reports at the NACA faced off against four or five experts on their topic. After they presented their findings, the researchers had to answer many questions and comments. The point was to find any inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or illogical statements buried in the text. After that, the report was subject to an intense critical review of its grammar and clarity. It could take months or years for a scientific report to make it to publication.

Katherine was not satisfied with sitting with the engineers outside these meetings and not being allowed to attend the editorial meetings. She asked many questions about the scope of their work and why she wasn’t allowed to attend these meetings. Women in 1958 had to balance being coy with being aggressive. Men analyzed the data women produced, but they didn’t think of women as peers. Women were interested in the work the men did, but they were not allowed to do it.

Despite facing significant obstacles, Katherine’s confidence and persistence drove her to fight until she was finally allowed to join the editorial meetings of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley’s Flight Research Division. This was a significant achievement for her and a step towards more significant social change and hard-won progress for all African Americans.

Shetterly’s focus on how hard it was to work at Langley as a woman or a person of color highlights the challenges that Katherine and her colleagues faced. It demonstrates just how unique Katherine was to have made it this far. Not only did she have to overcome racial and gender discrimination, but she also had to be the best of the best in her field. Katherine’s ability got her onto the Flight Research Team, but it was her confidence, persistence, and fearlessness that characterized her tenure there and helped her succeed.

In conclusion, Chapter 17 of Hidden Figures provides insights into Katherine’s remarkable achievements and the challenges she and her colleagues faced due to their race and gender. It highlights the importance of perseverance, confidence, and persistence in overcoming obstacles and achieving one’s dreams.



Why does the President’s Advisory Committee on Science say a space program is in the interest of every American? What are the reasons it gives?

The President’s Advisory Committee on Science stated that a space program was in the interest of every American for four reasons.

  • First, it would enhance national defense and global prestige.
  • Second, it would restore America’s wounded national pride, which was hurt after the Soviet Union’s successes in space.
  • Third, space exploration would provide an unprecedented opportunity to expand human knowledge about the universe.
  • Finally, humans had a compelling urge to go into space and explore what lay beyond the confines of their own small world.

Eisenhower’s brochure provided a vague timetable for space exploration, but the real schedule was to achieve these objectives as soon as humanly possible. The brochure laid out the scientific principles of spaceflight in terms that a layperson could understand.


How does the nature of Katherine’s work change as her department shifts from aeronautical to space?

Katherine’s work changed as her department shifted from aeronautical to space. While she still had to do monotonous calculations, her work became more intricate as she prepared charts and equations for space technology lectures. The engineers in her group now assigned her this job, which required using the abstract three-dimensional Cartesian plane that she had learned in a course on analytic geometry of space. Her job became more intense as she had to put this knowledge to use in the service of the space technology lectures, which were eventually compiled in written form. This work was critical in creating a textbook of space, being written in real time.


Why does Katherine want to go to the editorial meetings? Why is her desire to do so significant?

Katherine wants to go to the editorial meetings because she believes that the real action takes place there. She thinks that she could learn more about how the engineers review and scrutinize preliminary research reports and contribute to the discussion. She asks to attend the meetings, but her male colleagues tell her that it is not possible because girls do not go to those meetings. Katherine’s desire to attend the editorial meetings is significant because it shows her determination to learn more about her work and contribute to the discussion, regardless of her gender. It also highlights the gender discrimination that women faced in the workplace in the 1950s, where women were often excluded from important meetings and decisions.


What factors contributed to Katherine Goble success in making it into the editorial meetings of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley’s Flight Research Division?

Katherine Goble (later Johnson) was a highly skilled mathematician and computer who worked for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at Langley Research Center. Despite facing discrimination as a woman and as an African-American, she persevered and eventually made it into the editorial meetings of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley’s Flight Research Division.

One of the key factors that contributed to her success was her exceptional talent and dedication to her work. She was known for her meticulous attention to detail and her ability to solve complex mathematical problems that other people found difficult. This earned her the respect and admiration of her colleagues, and eventually helped her to break through the barriers that were preventing her from advancing in her career.

Another important factor was the support of her colleagues and mentors, who recognized her talents and advocated for her to be given more opportunities. In particular, Dorothy Vaughan, one of the few African-American supervisors at Langley, played an important role in helping Katherine to advance. She recognized Katherine’s talent and recommended her for a position in the Guidance and Control Branch, despite the fact that this was an all-male department at the time.

Finally, Katherine’s persistence and determination played a critical role in her success. She refused to be discouraged by the obstacles she faced, and continued to push herself to achieve more. This ultimately led to her breakthrough moment, when she was invited to attend the editorial meetings of the Guidance and Control Branch, where she was able to contribute her expertise and make valuable contributions to the team.


Names mentioned in Chapter 17

Dorothy Lee:

Dorothy Lee was a woman who worked as a computer at PARD in 1948. She was asked to sub for Maxime Faget’s secretary when she went on a two-week honeymoon. Dorothy’s work impressed Faget, who invited her to become a permanent member of his branch. Early in her career, Dorothy Lee was interviewed and was asked whether she believed women working with men had to think like a man, work like a dog, and act like a lady. Dorothy said yes, but she was uncomfortable with the “acting like a lady” term of the equation. She felt that too much politeness might poison a woman’s prospects for advancement. Despite these challenges, Dorothy was determined to take a seat at the table and succeeded in doing so.

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