The Stream

NASA’s ‘Hidden Figures’

Author Margot Shetterly chronicles the unsung black women who helped the US win the space race.

When astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1959, the United States was still largely racially segregated and women were only just beginning to enter the workforce. Yet against the odds, a group of black women were the “human computers” helping NASA and the US win the space race against the Soviet Union.

Their critical role in US history has been untold until now, thanks to author Margot Lee Shetterly, who joins The Stream on Thursday to discuss the real-life characters in her new book: “Hidden Figures“, the subject of an upcoming Hollywood film of the same name. 

From the 1940s through the 1960s, a group of African-American women including Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were using pencils and slide rulers to hand calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and men like Glenn into space.

They worked in a blacks-only wing of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, where Shetterly also grew up surrounded by these aeronautical pioneers. To the author, these “human computers” were a common sight. To the rest of the world, they were invisible next to the white male scientists defining new heights of human achievement. 

Although they broke gender and race barriers for generations to come, women and especially minorities still make up a small fraction of scientists, engineers and mathematicians today. On The Stream, Shetterly will share what it took to uncover the story of these “Hidden Figures”, how women and minorities are erased from history books and why she thinks re-establishing them could redefine the future. 

On this episode of The Stream, we speak to:

Margot Lee Shetterly @margotshetterly
Author, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”

Camille Eddy @nikkymill
Mechanical engineering student, Boise State University

Jedidah Isler @JedidahIslerPhD