If you watch videos of the control rooms at NASA throughout the early days of the space program, and especially the Apollo program, the scene is incredibly white. And yet that’s extremely misleading. Hidden Figures talks about the corps of black women mathematicians who were literally human computers as America ramped up its air dominance in the 1940s, and then played catch-up to the Soviet Union in the early days of the space race, culminating with the Apollo moon landing in 1969.
Despite a cultural context of Jim Crow and legal segregation, a group of black women mathematicians became essential at the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the precursor to NASA. Partly because men were being drafted into the military for the war effort, leaving women managing much of the work force; and partly because of strong ties in the Hampton, Virginia area to a number of historically black colleges, Hampton and the NACA became a hub for mathematicians, both men and women, white and black.
Of course all of the glass ceiling nonsense and racial bias was still a major issue at the time, but as one of the women featured in the book commented later in life, no one cares what color you are as long as the numbers are correct. And with the math determining life and death in the space program, the engineers and scientists relied on the computers who did the best work, and that was frequently the women featured in this book.
I haven’t seen the film version of the book yet, but now I’m really looking forward to it. This is a story of hope, perseverance, and personal character. It’s a story we need to be telling again and again to boost interest in math and science among young students, and especially for young women. The women of Hampton showed us very clearly that a true meritocracy can genuinely produce awe-inspiring feats. So inspiring.