Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Degrees of Freedom – Summary
Chapter 20 talks about the intersection of the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, highlights how both events were happening at the same time and influenced each other.
In 1960, the NASA Mercury Project was making progress towards sending astronauts into space. At the same time, four students from a black college in North Carolina staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. This sparked a movement inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and protests spread throughout the South. Many protestors were violently arrested, but the movement continued to grow.
Christine Mann, a student at Hampton Institute, joined the protests and helped with voter registration drives. Some activists believed that the astronauts were contributing to the student organizing, but this was only a rumor. Despite this, the spirit of the Space Race motivated the activists to continue their mission.
In Virginia, Governor Lindsay Almond reopened some schools in 1959 to move closer to integration. However, in Prince Edward County, the entire school system was defunded to avoid integration. As a result, black parents had to send their children to relatives around the state to attend school. These schools remained closed for five years, creating a group of affected children known as the “Lost Generation.” Unfortunately, many of these children never fully recovered from the lost education.
At Langley, the computer department began to desegregate more rapidly, and Dorothy Vaughan and the remaining West Area computers joined other engineering groups. Dorothy taught herself FORTRAN, a programming language for IBM computers, and worked alongside white women and men. This marked the end of the era when computing was thought of as women’s work.
NASA purchased more computers to support its dream of spaceflight and set up a network of communications stations around the globe to track the radio signal of Project Mercury. The launch date for Project Mercury was moved to 1961, the same year that the US cut diplomatic ties with Cuba. In his farewell speech, President Eisenhower criticized the military-industrial complex. In March of that year, President John F. Kennedy announced executive order 10925, which mandated affirmative action to ensure equal opportunity for all employees and applicants.
In April of 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, hastening NASA’s mission to send an American into space. After some failed launches involving chimpanzees and capsules, astronaut Alan Shepard completed the first suborbital flight. This prompted President Kennedy to call for the US to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.
Shetterly highlights the important role that African Americans played in the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement. She suggests that Katherine Johnson, one of the women featured in the book, will continue to play a significant role in scientific progress.
How does Hampton Institute get involved in the civil rights movement?
Hampton Institute becomes involved in the civil rights movement when some of its students, including Christine Mann, join the protests and voter registration drives organized at the college. The movement began with four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, a black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, staging a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in February 1960. The movement spreads across the South, and many protestors are often violently arrested. Virginia’s governor Lindsay Almond reopens Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Front Royal schools in 1959, moving the state closer to integration.
In contrast, in Prince Edward County, the entire school system is defunded, so Black parents have to send their children to relatives around the state so they can go to school. These schools stay closed for five years, creating a group of affected children known as the “Lost Generation.” Many Hampton Institute students, inspired by the civil rights movement, join the protests to demand equal rights for all.
In what ways does the rise of computing and advancements in computing technology affect the girl computers?
The rise of computing and advancements in computing technology affected the girl computers in several ways. The West Area Computing office, where they used to work, was shut down, and the remaining women were dispatched to different departments in the laboratory. For example, Dorothy Vaughan, the leader of the West Computers, reinvented herself as a computer programmer and began working with the IBM 704 computer.
Marjorie Peddrew and Isabelle Mann went to Gas Dynamics, Lorraine Satchell and Arminta Cooke joined Mary Jackson in the Supersonic Tunnels Branch, Hester Lovely and Daisy Alston left for the Twenty-Inch Hypersonic Jets Branch, Eunice Smith went to Ground Loads, and Pearl Bassette was assigned to the Eleven-Inch Hypersonic Tunnel.
This shows that the women computers were spread out across various departments of the laboratory, as their computing skills were needed in different areas of research.
What were the series of Mercury missions? How did they lead to Freedom 7?
To send the first American into space took a lot of tests, simulations, and experiments. This was part of a project called Project Mercury, which aimed to put a man into orbit. The Mercury capsule was used in every mission, but different rockets were used, such as Scout, Redstone, and Atlas. The first mission, Mercury-Redstone 1, failed on the launchpad. The second mission, Mercury-Redstone 2, had a chimpanzee named Ham as a passenger, but overshot the landing spot and was nearly underwater before being rescued. For the third mission, Mercury-Redstone 3, NASA decided to broadcast it live with astronaut Alan Shepard as the first American to go into space in the capsule named Freedom 7. When Shepard finally took off in the capsule and reached an altitude of 116.5 miles above Earth, it was a big success for the United States and NASA.
This was a suborbital flight, meaning it did not reach orbit, and lasted only 15 minutes and 22 seconds. Shepard’s success inspired President Kennedy to set a more ambitious goal of sending humans to the Moon.
What challenge did President Kennedy give to the space program? How do they receive this challenge?
In 1961, President Kennedy gave a challenge to the space program to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely to Earth before the end of the decade. This was a scary and exciting challenge for NASA because they had not even successfully placed a human into orbit yet. Achieving this goal would require a team of 18,000 people and it seemed unimaginably complex.
NASA eventually decided to move the heart of its space program to Houston, which meant that many Langley employees had to make hard choices. Despite this, much work remained for them on Project Mercury, including the orbital mission and the debut of the all-important tracking and communications network. Katherine Johnson, one of the Langley employees, was also asked to transfer to Houston with the group, but her husband wanted them to stay close to their families.
What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘Degrees of Freedom’?
The title “Degrees of Freedom” refers to the intersection of the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, and how both events were happening at the same time and influenced each other. The term “degrees of freedom” refers to the idea that as people gain more rights and opportunities, they gain more “degrees of freedom” to make choices and pursue their goals. In this context, the title likely refers to the increasing freedoms gained by African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, as well as the increasing technological and scientific freedoms made possible by the Space Race.
Names mentioned in Chapter 20
President Kennedy: The 35th President of the United States, who challenged the nation to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
Shepard: Alan Shepard, an astronaut who became the first American in space in 1961.
Ted Skopinski: An engineer and mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
John Mayer: An engineer and mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Carl Huss: An engineer and mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Harold Beck: An engineer and mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Mary Shep Burton: A mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Catherine T. Osgood: A mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Shirley Hunt Hinson: A mathematician who worked for NASA and played a key role in the development of the space program.
Virgil “Gus” Grissom: An astronaut who flew the second suborbital Mercury mission in 1961.
John Henry: A legendary figure from American folklore, known for his strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.