Margot Lee Shetterly delivered a keynote address at the RSA Conference last week. The topic of her speech was “Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,” a reference to her bestselling book by the same name. The book was a top book of 2016 for both Publisher’s Weekly and Time, a USA Today bestseller, and a #1 (instant) New York Times bestseller.
Researcher, writer and entrepreneur, Shetterly is also the Founder of the Human Computer Project–a digital archive of the historical documentation of NASA’s black “Human Computers” whose work tipped the balance in favor of the United States in WWII, the Cold War and the Space Race. Shetterly, who graduated from the University of Virginia, is a 2014 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, and recently joined the Terra Alpha Investments advisory board.
The Historical Backdrop of the Book & Movie
The movie, ‘Hidden Figures,’ was nominated in three award categories, (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) but did not win in any of them. The historical account the book and movie are based on involves the contributions of three black female mathematicians whose calculations were crucial for sending astronauts into space, beginning in the 1950s.
The central character is mathematician Katherine G. Johnson who began working for National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in the 1950s. NACA is now referred to as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and commonly known as NASA. Johnson and her female colleagues calculated the figures NASA needed to move the space program forward. And, Johnson was responsible for calculating the trajectories of America’s first manned mission into orbit and the first Moon landing.
Like their white counterpoints, the segregated, all black pool of mathematicians were recruited by NASA to work as “human computers” at the Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. They produced the computations necessary for figuring out everything from wind tunnel resistance to rocket trajectories to safe reentry angles.
A Mental Floss article focused on Johnson states that, “all of Langley’s hundreds of ‘human computers,’ whether black or white, were women. It was an era when, as Johnson put it, ‘the computer wore a skirt.’ The same man shortage that handed Rosie her rivets when the U.S. entered WWII in 1941 handed the human computers their slide rules. That year, FDR signed an order to hire more African-American workers, and two years later, in 1943, Langley started hiring college-educated black women with a background in math and chemistry.”
According to the book, the three main characters suffered various indignities while working at NASA, due to the racism of that time. But, equipped with resilience and a steely persistence, they overcame obstacles and continued to provide NASA with their much needed math skills.
Eventually, Johnson became the only non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force, whose responsibility it was to initiate the blast off of American astronauts into space. When that mission occurred for the first time, in 1961, Johnson’s calculations for Alan Shepard’s capsule trajectory played a crucial role.
Johnson recalls that mission:
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” Johnson told Langley’s in-house newsletter, Researcher News, in 2008. “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
When it was John Glenn’s turn to go up, NASA had begun using machines for the pre-flight calculations. But Glenn wasn’t too keen on the new technology and insisted that Johnson double-check the results.
Shortly afterwards, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Johnson would continue to have impact on future missions, including calculating the trajectory for Apollo 11 and providing her expertise to the space shuttle program. View the ‘Hidden Figures’ trailer below:
The Keynote Address
During the keynote address, Margot Lee Shatterly discussed race, gender, science and technology. Comments across social media suggest that Shatterly’s presentation was a source of inspiration to many. The following are quotes from the keynote address, last Thursday, at the RSA Conference:
“Why haven’t we heard this story before is the question I’m asked most often.”
“At the time, men did the engineering and women did the computing.”
“I like to call them extraordinary ordinary people – they wanted to be the right person for the right job at hand.”
“These women existed in a blind spot. Now there are a critical mass of women who understand the groundwork laid by these women”
At the end of her speech, Shatterly leaves the audience with a final question: “What else or who else are we missing?” which was a theme throughout her address.