On Being a Black Female Math Whiz During the Space Race

On Being a Black Female Math Whiz During the Space Race

The New York Times

Cara Buckley, Culture Reporter

Katherine Johnson, left, and Christine Darden, two of the former NASA mathematicians in the book “Hidden Figures.”
Credit:  Chet Strange for The New York Times

HAMPTON, Va. — Growing up here in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionize air flight and put Americans on the moon, Margot Lee Shetterly had a pretty fixed idea of what scientists looked like: They were middle class, African-American and worked at NASA, like her dad.

It would be years before she learned that this was far from the American norm. And that many women in her hometown defied convention, too, by having vibrant, and by most standards, unusual careers.

Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Ms. Shetterly’s first book, “Hidden Figures,” a history being released on Tuesday by William Morrow. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, is scheduled for a year-end release and set for an Oscars run. The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Ms. Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014, and well before she started writing the book in earnest, a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn…

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