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Hidden Figures: Women`s Role in Space Science

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Women played a key role in the American space race. Hidden Figures, written by Margot Lee Shetterly is a novel detailing the story of several women who worked at NASA solving problems for the engineers as “computers”. Furthermore, this novel discusses the major racial issues during this time; where, the initial introduction of integration is resisted in several states across the United States. Overall, the central argument of Hidden Figures is that these women made it possible for the United States to send a man to the moon. The three figures in this novel took part in many tasks that would soon become extraordinary accomplishments. The three computers, with mentions of a fourth, Christine Darden, had contributed to some of NASA’s greatest successes. The book puts focus on the space race, when NASA was prepared to send astronaut John Glenn up, anticipating him to be the first American to orbit Earth. It is quite notable that Glenn did not exactly trust the machines that would do calculations for his flight. Instead, he put his confidence in Katherine. He would state, “Get the girl, check the numbers” before boarding the rocket, and, “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go”. Which demonstrates the respect that computers, like Katherine, gained over the years, from putting in hard work and effort. In fact, Katherine’s mathematical skill and research were key to NASA’s success; and, among other accomplishments at NASA, “her calculations singlehandedly saved the Apollo 13 mission”, Johnson is “the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white”. 

Without Katherine and the other women who served as computers, it is possible that the many missions in the space race would not have been completed as successfully or as quickly as they occurred. The progression of social justice was made possible because of these women. Not only did they experience discrimination and racial prejudice, but they had to fight against society for more opportunties, such as a higher position or a chance to attend classes. These women rose above the low expectations and proved their capabilities and intellect: In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at the single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world”. 

This quote solidifies that the women in this novel paved the path; not only for other African Americans, but, for women, in industries that are predominantly for men. In fact, their contributions to the space race helped the introduction of integration to reduce segregation in Virginia; which was a state that protested against it initially. At this time, women like Katherine were withheld from meetings at NASA. “Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?’ she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. ‘How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all”. This excerpt from the novel, demonstrates the gender discrimination felt by everyone at Langley; however, Katherine persevered and eventually was able to attend the meetings. Particularly, these women succeeded in reducing discrimination of women and other races in a place where they were highly victimized. Overall, the accomplishments of these women helped the progression of integration as well as equality between races and gender. 

The three women introduced in Hidden Figures have their own unique and compelling stories and for decades, these “human computers” employed for NASA, would be essential components of the space race. In addition to their contribution, all these women faced adversity and inequality in the eyes of the vast population, but they “went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes”. 

Mary Winston Jackson (1921-2005) worked as an aeronautical engineer. She excelled in mathematics and sciences, to earn her spot as a research mathematician or “human computer” for NASA. She eventually came to be Langley Research Center’s first black female engineer; by 1978, Jackson became a human resources administrator and helped other women and minorities advance in their careers. 

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (1918-2020) was the one behind the calculations that let humans achieve a successful space flight. She was a gifted child, graduating college at 18 years old. In 1952, Johnson applied to NASA to serve as a computer and earned the position at Langley Research Center and after two weeks, she was transferred to Langley’s flight research division. Johnson became the first woman to publish a research paper on spaceflight. 

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910-2008) was one of the first African American mathematicians hired at NASA. Prior to contributing at NASA, Dorothy found success “As a college graduate and a teacher, she stood near the top of what most Negro women could hope to achieve”. She was responsible for calculating computations for engineers working on aeronautical experiments. Each of the women had their own professional roles prior to working at NASA as computers, which helped to fortify their importance in the space race. 

The issues of feminism and equality of people are explored in Hidden Figures is highlighted with the roles that each woman played in the progression of technology and society. Additionally, they made space flight possible for the United States with their calculations. Overall, these women were crucial components of NASA. I would recommend this novel for any young woman who is interested in learning about the discrimination that other women felt, at a time where it was more apparent than it is today. Additionally, I would recommend this novel for anyone who is interested in the racial and social perspective of the space race. 

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