I was saddened last week to hear of the death of Katherine Johnson, one of the human “computers,” women with math degrees who worked for NACA, which became NASA, aiding the development of the space program, during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and others worked at Langley Field West Computers; the white women worked in the east computing pool.
Three years ago, I was honored to be chosen as one of the selection team for our Book Group, tasked with selecting nine books from the thirty or so suggested by our members. Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, was the one book the three of us were unanimous in choosing, with much excited discussion of the book, which had just been released. We broke our overly cautious rule of not selecting a book that hadn’t first been read by a member, but no questions asked, we were reading this book!
Since Shetterly grew up knowing many of the people, the book had a personal feel, in spite of the amount of math and science involved. Although I’m not a technical type, I enjoyed reading this excellent, well-written book, full of personal stories about women who worked hard. I especially enjoyed the detailing of the growth of respect between people who worked on the space technology, the east and west computers becoming one group, and how relationships changed between people in a place where the good work one did mattered more than one’s gender or skin color, despite the distressing Jim Crow rules. There was a wonderful story of how the astronauts trusted Katherine Johnston more than the new automated computer machines. Many things that happened at Langley Field have made our world a better place.
I remember my mom getting me out of bed one night to watch the live telecast of Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. Back in 1969, I just wanted to get back to bed and my teddy bear, but Katherine Johnson and her coworkers increased the safety of space exploration, which of course, increased its speed and success.
My book club had a short discussion of this book and watched the movie together.While I enjoyed the movie, reading the book was a much more engaging experience, full of more personal stories that happened to real people, a long time ago.