These black women helped make space history

Former Nasa mathematicians Katherine Johnson (left) and Christine Darden are subjects of Hidden Figures, which tells the story of black female mathematicians who worked at the space agency.
Former Nasa mathematicians Katherine Johnson (left) and Christine Darden are subjects of Hidden Figures, which tells the story of black female mathematicians who worked at the space agency.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

HAMPTON, VIRGINIA • Growing up here in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionise 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 learnt 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 the 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 lanternjawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Shetterly's first book, Hidden Figures, a history released yesterday by William Morrow. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, is scheduled for a year-end release and set for an Oscar run.

The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014 and well before she started writing the book in earnest - a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn.

"The thrilling thing to me about the book and the movie is that this is an American story that we're getting to see through the faces of these women," she said during a recent visit to Hampton, which sits on the south-eastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, surrounded by aquamarine waters and Navy ships.

"It's just as American a story as if it were (space pioneers) John Glenn or Alan Shepard telling it."

Shetterly happened upon the idea for the book six years ago, when she and her husband Aran Shetterly, then living in Mexico, were visiting her parents here.

The couple and Shetterly's father were driving around in his minivan when he mentioned, very casually, that one of Shetterly's former Sunday school teachers had worked as a mathematician at Nasa, and that another woman she knew had calculated rocket trajectories for famous astronauts.

Shetterly remembers her husband perking up and asking why he had never heard this tale before. "I knew women who worked at Nasa as mathematicians and engineers," she said, "but it took someone from the outside saying, 'Wait a minute', for me to see the story there."

Two of the women she would focus on are still living in the area. Ms Christine Darden, now 73 and retired, had worked her way out of Nasa's computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms. Mrs Katherine Johnson, who recently turned 98, lives in a retirement home with her husband of 57 years, Mr James A. Johnson, and is enjoying a recent surge of fame. She had calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions and, last year, United States President Barack Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life's work.

Ms Darden and Mrs Johnson still socialise and, on a recent summer day, met to play bridge at Mrs Johnson's apartment. (Mrs Johnson and her partner won.) Shetterly was visiting too and presented both women with an early copy of her book.

"Fantastic," Ms Darden said as Mrs Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.

Yet, asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Henson in the starring role, Mrs Johnson became solemn. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. "I was never aggressive," she added.

Shetterly reminded her of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. "You took matters in your own hands," Shetterly said. "For other women, it was a revelation."

Mrs Johnson said: "Well, I don't ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, 'Is there a law?' And he said, 'Let her go.' It was easier than arguing."

Ms Ann Hammond, whose mother Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or Naca, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Ms Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98 and is played in the film by Spencer.

"My mother would've probably said, 'I was just doing my job,'" Ms Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.

NEW YORK TIMES

•Hidden Figures (US$10.86 or S$14.70) is available at Amazon.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'These black women helped make space history'. Print Edition | Subscribe