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Last Updated on August 30, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is the true story of African-American women who worked at the Langley Memorial Research Center in Virginia in the early years of the aeronautical industry. The expert work of these women in mathematics helped the industry advance and helped launch America into the space race. These women worked behind the scenes in the all-Black West Computing unit, and their work went unnoticed for decades despite the fact that they masterminded some of the most important operations in the history of American space flight.

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The story begins during World War II, when Black women were called to fill a gap in the workforce at Langley by doing calculations by hand. These women, called “human computers,” did mind-boggling computations before the digital age. With World War II on the horizon, America needed expert mathematicians in order to succeed in the space race and beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Shetterly focuses primarily on the work of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson. She chronicles their lives and work in the segregated South, and she describes the discrimination they faced in their day-to-day lives. All of these women uprooted their lives to pursue opportunities at Langley, and they made accomplishments important to American history.

The computers with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were almost all women. Dorothy Vaughan was hired as a mathematician in 1942, having previously worked as a math teacher. She is forced to move away from her family for the job and assumes it will temporary. Dorothy and the other Black computers are squared away in a segregated wing as well as separated from their white peers during lunch. Even though the war ends, Dorothy is kept on as an employee—she is even promoted to the acting head of the unit by 1951. She is largely considered to be one of NASA’s pioneers. Mary Jackson joins the team under Dorothy. 

With the Cold War brewing and the United States justifying the fight against communism as a matter of equality for all, Hidden Figures openly wonders how racial oppression can be tolerated, even encouraged, at home in the United States. Though the NACA certainly emphasized racial segregation and prejudice, it was a workplace that allowed more flexibility than the surrounding world. The women in the story are often given opportunities to move up as their skills become recognized—some become engineers or are merely noticed in a way they were not previously.

Katherine Johnson, previously a master’s student in math, begins work in the Flight Research Division in 1953. She simultaneously experiences prejudice and praise: people initially dismiss her, then value her as a team member and individual, yet she struggles to receive the pay she deserves. Katherine begins research that ultimately explains that turbulence from one plane can impact others in its vicinity. She receives such positive acknowledgment for this that she begins using the “whites only” restroom. During the launch of Friendship 7, Katherine was responsible for checking the computations alongside the digital computers since they were prone to error or malfunction. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, agreed to begin the mission when Katherine checked the calculations, saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

The three women experience a world that is very much in flux: huge social and technological changes come about as they are making their way in the NACA. Major civil rights advances are made, challenging the status quo of their Jim Crow-influenced workplace in Virginia. The research center obtains its first computer, causing many to question if they will even have jobs computing by hand. The space race was, of course, ongoing; Mary, Dorothy, and Katherine witness the development of Sputnik (the first Earth satellite). Apollo 11 successfully launches in the sixties, and this is partially due to the contributions of people like Katherine. Amidst these major upheavals of what was considered possible, the women in Hidden Figures accomplished many astounding things.

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