Many Americans are familiar with the astronaut heroes of the 20th century space race — names like Gus Grissom and Neil Armstrong. But who did the calculations that would successfully land these men on the moon?
Several of the NASA researchers who made space flight possible were women. Among them were black women who played critical roles in the aeronautics industry even as Jim Crow was alive and well.
“When the first five black women took their seat in the office in 1943, it was in a segregated office with a ‘colored girls’ bathroom and a table for the ‘colored’ computers,” author Margot Lee Shetterly tells NPR’s Michel Martin.
Shetterly, a Hampton, Va., native and daughter of a former Langley scientist, tells the story of these women in the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book has already been adapted for the big screen; the film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae premieres in January.
On the important work that took place at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Every time you go to an airport and get on a plane, you are basically taking advantage of the work that was done at Langley. Between World War I and World War II, they did just tremendous amount of fundamental research into basically making airplanes safer, making them more stable … making them faster and turning them into the technology that is as ubiquitous as it is today.
On the many African-Americans who found opportunities at Langley, including her own father
One of the things that was true about Hampton Road is it’s a defense community. There’s an Air Force base, there are several Army bases, Coast Guard center, shipyards; so it’s a huge place in terms of the defense industrial complex. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of people actually — and among them many African-American — migrated to the Hampton Roads area because of the job boom that was happening. It was a place where you could get stable war jobs.
On whether she was aware, as a child, of the vital work black women were doing at Langley
I knew that many of them worked at NASA. I didn’t know exactly what they did. I didn’t know why they had started working there. I didn’t know or really had questioned why there were so many women of all backgrounds working there until I started working on this book, you know. And it was like a window opened. And all of a sudden, I started looking at not just those women, but my hometown in a very different way.
Source: NPR | All Things Considered