The ‘Hidden Figures’ of NASA’s Early Years and the Woman Who Told Their Story

Motherboard talks to author Margot Lee Shetterly about the legacy of pioneering black women mathematicians who helped NASA win the Space Race.

The golden age of American space exploration is emblematized by figures like Mercury Seven pioneer John Glenn, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the steel-nerved flight director Gene Kranz, who led the effort to bring the Apollo 13 crew safely home to Earth.

But for every man who returned from space to ticker-tape parades and international celebrity, there were thousands of men and women from diverse backgrounds working behind-the-scenes at NASA, and its predecessor NACA.

Among their ranks were a group of African-American female mathematicians based at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. These brilliant women were hired to crunch numbers for the center's aviation and aeronautics projects; their work contributed to major technological victories, including Chuck Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier in 1947, John Glenn's 1962 historic orbital flight in Friendship 7, and the Apollo Moon landings.

The story of these women is recounted in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Hampton native Margot Lee Shetterly, a former investment banker and media entrepreneur whose father was a research scientist at Langley. The book, published in fall 2016, was adapted into a recently released film of the same name—currently leading the US box office.

READ MORE: Watch Taraji P. Henson Play a NASA Mathematician in 'Hidden Figures'

The book delves deep into the story of these "West Area Computers," so named because they were confined to the "colored" section in Langley's west wing, in compliance with Jim Crow segregation laws.

The stark contrast between the unforgettable milestones these women helped achieve—advancing humanity literally to the Moon and back—and the regressive attitudes they had to endure can be stunning. Shetterly does a thorough job of teasing out numerous complex perspectives during Langley's early years, focusing in particular on the stories of mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Christine Darden, and Katherine Johnson.

"In the office, the women felt equal," she writes, "but in the cafeteria, and in the bathrooms designated for colored girls, the signs were a reminder that even within the meritocracy of the US Civil Service, even after Executive Order 8802, some were more equal than others."

"Even the group's anodyne title was both descriptive and a little deceptive, allowing the laboratory to comply with the Fair Employment Act—West Computing was simply a functional description on the organizational chart—while simultaneously appeasing the Commonwealth of Virginia's discriminatory separate-but-equal statutes."

NASA has significantly diversified its workforce since the Space Race, and is running a series of short biographies showcasing the careers of African-American women working at the agency today. Projects like Future Katherine Johnsons, a collaboration between 20th Century Fox and the nonprofit organization Black Girls Code, aim to encourage new generations of black women to pursue STEM careers.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson receives a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Video: YouTube/NASA

Still, the fact that it took decades for the West Area Computers to receive widespread public recognition for their vital contributions to American history shows that there is plenty of work left to do.

Motherboard spoke with Shetterly about these extraordinary Langley pioneers, and the ongoing invisibility many people still face in STEM fields. As we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this Monday, the barriers these women helped break—from the speed of sound to the indignity of workplace segregation—are more relevant than ever.

Motherboard: You had to weave together a lot in Hidden Figures, between the scientific research, the social history, and also personal anecdotes that gave a sense of the personalities and experiences of these women. How did you approach researching and sourcing the book, and creating one narrative out of all those elements?

Margot Lee Shetterly: I spent three years pulling all the information together, and the first thing I did were interviews [...] with women who were local and still alive, and their families. Then it was a matter of weaving in a lot of the documentary stuff.

Fortunately, at NASA Langley, there's a woman named Mary Gainer, who retired last year, but she was just phenomenal historian and she had done a ton of recovery work. She had found and digitized photos, research reports, telephone books, and employee newsletters from 1942.

You still hear women in general, and women of color in particular, talking about feeling invisible

Obviously, [the book] is about the work these women did, so probably the highest hill that I had to scale was to really teach myself enough about aerodynamics and applied math to write about it clearly.

Another amazing source were the black community papers, like the Norfolk Journal and Guide, which was the primary black newspaper in southeastern Virginia, and had tentacles beyond that. That's where I found, for example, the little blurb that talks about Dorothy Vaughan first setting off from Farmville, Virginia, to take a job at Langley. That's where I found the cover image of the 11 first computers who took a job in 1943.

Once that happened, it was a matter of deciding who were the right people to tell the story. Katherine Johnson was an obvious one; people have been writing about Katherine Johnson since 1962, so she's well-known.

But the other women—Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden—each of them is exceptional in some fashion, and spent their entire careers at Langley. So, it was a great way to tell the story of the black community, to tell the story of the larger group of women, and to tell the story of the evolution of aerodynamics and spaceflight. That's sort of the long-winded answer.

Hidden Figures addresses both the accomplishments of the West Area Computers and the prejudices they faced in the social climate of the time. How did you strike that balance?

My focus was really on the women. They experienced the work, the prejudice, the gender bias, and the love for their craft of being a mathematician or an engineer. They had friendships with the white engineers. Like all of us, they had different identities: they were black, they were women, they were scientists, they were mothers, they were all these different things.

I think focusing on the individual women made it possible, through each of their personalities, characters, and experiences, to connect to the larger picture. What's really interesting obviously compared to today's standard, what was going on [at Langley]—with segregated bathrooms and cafeterias and stuff that was really regressive—the thing that's amazing is that compared to most other places, it was kind of a progressive place.

The fact that these women were able to get in the door, particularly the black women, [to work] in this male-dominated environment, was more progressive than most jobs available to women in general, and specifically to black women.

Do you think those prejudices are still somewhat alive at NASA, or STEM institutes more broadly, or have they been largely left behind?

I tell you what's really interesting; I just flew back from the Joint Mathematics Meetings, the largest convention of mathematicians in the world, with about 6,000 mathematicians attending.

They honored the women of Hidden Figures. It was one of the most remarkable things to stand in a hugely packed room talking to a group of mathematicians, talking about the work that these women did. The event had been sponsored by the National Association of Mathematicians, which is a group focused on African-American mathematicians, and the Association of Women in Mathematics, which is a group of female mathematicians from all backgrounds.

Hidden Figures trailer. Video: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

The thing that was just remarkable, when you talk to those people, is both how far it's come [...] yet you still hear women in general, and women of color in particular, talking about feeling invisible, and getting a lot of energy from this story, because even though it took place 60 or 70 years ago, a lot of the things that they're experiencing still ring true to them.

We have made tremendous progress but there is still a lot to do, and I think part of the problem is this invisibility. It's not just the fact that there need to be greater numbers and better inclusion in these fields, but that people who are there, who are female or people of color, that they are actually seen. Not just seen by the majority of society, but seen by each other.

Is that persistent invisibility why you went for the title Hidden Figures?

I think that was like the fifth title or something [laughs]. There were a lot of titles that weren't quite right, and I can even remember when that one snapped into focus, but it was just like, "okay, that's it."

I liked that it was sort of a pithy title, very succinct, and that the meaning refers both to the women and to the numerical work that they did—that everyone did. You see Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, you see Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon, and you have no idea how many years and how many numbers it took to evolve to the point where that was possible, so it refers to both of those things.

Then afterwards, I found out, it is also the title of an Air Force pilot aptitude test for spatial reasoning. That was a serendipitous thing I discovered after deciding on the title for the book.

A lot of commentators have reacted to Hidden Figures with the question: "Why haven't I heard this story before?" What kind of role do you think storytellers play in terms of rooting out and sharing these underrepresented stories?

This is my first book. Obviously, it's my first movie. All of this stuff is big firsts. I never had an idea before how powerful it is to be able to tell a story. It's a really powerful thing.

I think the role is really to find those facts, that an individual sees that others don't. I happen to have been a black woman who is the daughter of a black research scientist working at NASA, living in a community where a lot of people worked for NASA, and many are black or female or both. That gave me a unique perspective, and a way into both the details and the emotional content and context for the story.

That's really what this is for me: My version of America and the American dream and social mobility. It's thrilling to me to have come upon this story and have a chance to tell it because I think it's an amazing American story.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.