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Summary: We need all the brainpower we can get.

Even in the darkest days of prejudice, when women and minorities were most oppressed and their talents denigrated, they’ve always been there, making crucial contributions to human progress. The only question is whether their achievements are preserved in the historical record, or whether they’re shunted into the background so that white men can get all the glory. Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, about the black women of NASA who helped America win the space race, is a case in point and a key step toward redressing an unfairly tilted historical balance.

I first heard of this book in a review last year, and my reaction was amazement that I’d never heard any of this before. Shetterly estimates that almost fifty black women worked at NASA as mathematicians, engineers or scientists, and she’s certain that more names would turn up with additional research [p.xvi]. And their contributions weren’t small: one of them, Katherine Johnson, co-authored the Azimuth Angle paper which set out the equations used in John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth. (She boasted, “Tell me where you want the man to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up” [p.190]). She followed up by computing the trajectory that made it possible for the Apollo lunar lander to blast off and rendezvous with the orbiting command module.

As Shetterly tells it, the institution that would become NASA grew out of aerodynamic research during World War II, when the crucial role of air power in winning the conflict became obvious. Making a fighter plane or a bomber even a fraction faster, more stable or more fuel-efficient could save American lives or make the difference between victory and defeat. NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, had enormous and pressing need for engineers, mathematicians, physicists – and “computers,” which was originally a job title rather than a machine, referring to the people who carried out laborious calculations by hand.

The booming military-industrial complex transformed Hampton, Virginia, a sleepy fishing town, into the nucleus of the American war effort. At the Langley Research Center, wind tunnels and other experimental facilities sprang up overnight. Under pressure from civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph, President Roosevelt issued executive orders prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry. This was an enormous opportunity for black Americans, since even those few who held advanced degrees had been able to hope for no employment more prestigious than nurses or schoolteachers. Now, these lucrative new jobs were open to all comers.

Shetterly spends many chapters introducing the black women who answered this call, describing their family lives, dreams and educational attainments. Her cast of characters is much larger and richer than I can do justice to with this post, although she focuses on three in particular: Katherine Johnson, whom I’ve mentioned; Dorothy Vaughan, the first black head of the “West Area Computers” research division at Langley; and Mary Jackson, whose work on supersonic flight made her perfectly suited for testing the Apollo capsule.

As World War II ended and the Cold War began, the space race took on an all-consuming importance. The Soviet Union loomed larger as a threat, and its accomplishments – first the launch of Sputnik, then the successful orbit of Yuri Gagarin – were a demoralizing shock to America’s sense of superiority. Before long NACA became NASA, and its engineers, black, white, male and female, plunged into the study of rocketry and orbits, hoping to catch up and surpass their superpower foe.

Despite working on projects that were America’s wartime salvation and its national pride and glory, these black engineers and mathematicians lived and worked in Virginia, under the shadow of Jim Crow. Shetterly describes the indignities they suffered in one telling anecdote after another. Even at NASA, a haven of meritocracy compared to the outside world, there were segregated bathrooms and segregated lunchroom tables. It was widely understood, even if never explicit, that black and female employees would work in junior and subordinate positions below their white male counterparts, and almost never got co-author credit for the scientific results that they made possible.

Some responded to discrimination with quiet acquiescence, recognizing that they were still getting better treatment and better pay than would have been possible anywhere else. (When Dorothy Vaughan, later in life, was asked about the pay gap, she said, “They paid me what they said they were going to pay me” [p.265]). Others fought back with small, stubborn acts of resistance: one engineer, Miriam Mann, tore down the “Colored” poster over the lunchroom table every day until it stopped being replaced [p.48]. Katherine Johnson refused to use the bathrooms designed for black workers; since the ones implicitly for whites were unlabeled, she decided she was allowed to use them as well, and no one was willing to openly contradict her [p.129].

Shetterly points out the bitter irony that while NASA was desperate for mathematicians and engineers, scouring historically black colleges for every talented graduate they could produce, at the same time the surrounding state of Virginia was engaging in massive resistance against school desegregation. Under the leadership of racist politicians like Senator Harry Byrd, Virginia closed down entire school districts rather than be forced to integrate them. White students from wealthy families fled to private “segregation academies,” while many poor students simply languished with no education at all – for years, in some cases:

Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth. [p.204]

Many ordinary white Virginians bragged that they’d rather keep their children ignorant than allow black children to learn too.

The story of NASA’s black women engineers is another example of how we need all the brainpower we can get. Whatever stereotypes may say, there’s a deep and mostly untapped well of potential in human beings of every outward appearance. Even now, when official segregation has ended, we’re nowhere near as close to equality as we like to think. We may yet be surprised by what other bright flares of genius may be burning, unsuspected and unremarked-on, in corners that the light of history hasn’t illuminated.

Image: Katherine Johnson at work, via NASA

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...