When Neil Armstrong planted a stars and stripes flag on the moon in 1969, it was a truly patriotic achievement for the United States. But it never would have happened—at least not right then, not in the same way—were it not for the African American women who calculated rocket trajectories as mathematicians and engineers in NASA’s space program.
Writer Margot Lee Shetterly has chronicled the stories of these women in her recently published book, Hidden Figures, due to be released as a film starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer in 2017.
The African American women at NASA were known as “human computers.” Their ranks included mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.
For Shetterly, the story is so significant in part because it doesn’t focus on one lone success story, but on multiple women.
“There’s such a power to the story of the first and only. And for good reason. These people defy stereotype by being the first PhD in math, or whatever the case may be,” she says. “But they’re more ideals than people. If you’re the only woman or the only black person it’s just too much. It’s a heavy burden to bear and it’s not giving us the kind of progress we need. What we need is for all of this to normalize and for everyone to have the experience of knowing a scientist could be any one of us.”
Shetterly herself grew up surrounded by African American men and women who were brilliant at math. Her father worked at NASA, and she says a black girl set the standard for math and science in her school. “I found it totally normal,” she says. “In retrospect, it was unusual.”
So unusual, in fact, that when she first began to talk about her book on social media, she would get tweets from people assuming that it must be a novel—that African American women contributing to NASA’s moon landing couldn’t possibly be real.
“Stereotypes are very powerful,” she notes. Even within the black community, she believes the public perception is that scientists tend to be white guys. “Black women at NASA? It’s got to be fiction, it can’t be true, because those things are seen as dichotomous,” she adds.
In fact, African American women were first allowed to work at NASA during World War II. Legislation that de-segregated the federal government paved the way, as did sheer demand for labor. The fact that historically black colleges such as Howard University were located within a day’s drive of NASA’s research center in Hampton, Virginia, meant that there was a strong supply of talented applicants. “Once the door was open, there was this new job open to black women and word started to get around,” says Shetterly.
But although black women at NASA were in plain sight, their stories have remained largely untold for decades. Similarly, Shetterly believes that many black women working in science and tech today are relatively hidden from mainstream view. “A lot of the people working in these fields and doing very well in these fields are still quite invisible,” she notes. “Given the numbers of black women starting out in aeronautical research in 1943, maybe we should’ve seen an even greater number of female engineers by now, but we’re still having this conversation.”
Black women in the sciences are still fighting against stereotypes about who belongs in the field and who doesn’t. Research has also found that black female tech founders are under-funded relative to their presence in the industry and success of their businesses.
Refusing to tell the success stories of black women in science slows progress, and also limits our understanding of history. Even during the Jim Crow years, Shetterly says, people were living full lives to the best of their abilities. “There’s so much more than the civil rights, slavery, Jim Crow narrative,” says Shetterly. “That full humanity is sacrificed when we don’t bring those stories to life.”
She hopes that her book and the visual impact of the film will help counter stereotypes about what a scientist should look like. Although Shetterly recognizes that these stories will be particularly meaningful for black women, and women who struggle to be seen in their jobs, she believes the NASA scientists are powerful figures for everyone.
“I hope these stories are just as inspiring to some little white boy who loves science and says, ‘I like Katherine Johnson, I want to be like her’,” she says. “How amazing would that be?”