If you saw the movie you’ll remember the scene: John Glenn about to board Mercury 7 and stopping to call NACA (later NASA). “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he says. “If she says it’s okay then we go.”
Well, that really happened. John Glenn really made that call. Not on launch day but three days before, but still.
That is only one of the many astonishing stories you will find in this book, which, yes, is a history of black women (and white women) mathematicians in the American aviation and space programs from World War II on, but it is also a history of American aviation, of the US space program, of segregation and race prejudice in America, of how Russia used the US’s race relations as a diplomatic weapon against the US abroad.
“Eighty percent of the world’s population is colored,” the NACA’s chief legal counsel Paul Dembling had written in a 1956 file memo. “In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country. Those countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States.”
But they could, oh, they could, and another astonishing part of this story is the determination and dignity of people like Katherine A. Goble Johnson and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn in just doing their damn jobs the best they knew how, which was good enough to help the US to victory in WWII and into space from Sputnik through today. Almost 600 human beings have been in space and all of them at least in part owe their launches, orbits and re-entries to the math worked by these women.
It took Shetterly five years to research and write this book and in the epilogue she writes
There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities–legalized segregation, racial discrimination–there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.
In other words, this story is in microcosm what we would like our nation, our world to actually be. And for this one place, this moment in time, was.
But before we pat ourselves on the back too hard, Shetterly also points out that all this work was taking place in the great state of Virginia, which during the time of this story closed down its public schools for five years rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education and integrate their classrooms. Never underestimate the power of people to hurt each other just as much as they possibly can.
A dense, informative read, highly recommended. If only for the appearance of Star Trek near the end. Yep, Dorothy and Mary and Katherine were all fans, because, well, Uhura.