In 1962, a group of black women engineers at NASA computed the math to send astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
Yes, that's right: NASA. Black women mathematicians. 1962.
They had been hired in 1943. Before Rosa Parks sat at the front of a bus, in protest of segregation. Before Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream speech." Before Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional. Before African Americans—women or men—could use the same public restrooms as whites.
On Tuesday at Thrivals 9.0, part of IdeaFestival 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky, author Margot Shetterly spoke in front of hundreds of high school students about how the story came to light.
Shetterly's book Hidden Figures, the untold story of these women—and so many other women in the space program—is a narrative that seems so out of joint with the history most Americans have learned. She is the founder of the Human Computer Project, the digital archive of the history of these black female mathematicians—who were then dubbed "computers." The true story has inspired a film, out in January, starring Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Janelle Monae.
"Why did I not know this story?" Monae asked Shetterly on stage at Thrivals.
Monae was upset that she had grown up without knowing this important history of black women. To Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, Virginia, with a father who worked for NASA, it had seemed normal. "As a child, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that's just what black folks did," Shetterly wrote.
But these women were, in fact, outliers. The story began during World War II when "if a woman had a talent for math, she would become a math teacher," Shetterly said. "That was the acceptable path for women." But, starting in 1943, with the men sent out to war, there was a sudden shortage of mathematicians. The women who excelled in teaching math started by working on airplanes.
And in the 1960s, Shetterly said these women began working on NASA spacecraft. They worked to solve the question: How can we send a satellite into space with someone inside, and bring them safely back to earth?
There were, at that point, about fifty black women working on the problem at Virginia's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, a branch of NASA.
"Nobody at NASA could do the math except for Katherine Johnson," Monae said. Johnson was brought in to calibrate the output that the computer had calculated for the flight, Shetterly said. "If she was off by one number, nobody would have made it," Monae said. "We would not be having this conversation about going into space."
That's right, Shetterly said. John Glenn, Shetterly said, wouldn't have gotten into the rocket. He wanted Johnson to make sure it was right.
Even with the final pre-flight checklist, "John Glenn said, 'Get the girl to do it,'" Shetterly told the audience. "If she says these numbers are good to go, we're going to do it."
A difficult path
"When we look at history, we look at the triumphant moments," said Shetterly, "but we need to look at the difficult moments."
Johnson, she said, could not even use the NASA bathroom. "Segregation in bathrooms and cafeterias and workplaces was still the law," she said.
The most inspiring part of the story, for Shetterly, is that even at a time when these women were not treated equally, they were fighting for the rights of their country. "They were supporting America's fight for democracy," Shetterly said, "while at the same time, they had to fight for their own full citizen rights."
SEE: Hacking the Nazis: The secret story of the women who broke Hitler's codes (PDF download) (TechRepublic cover story)
Part of the message, Shetterly said, is that no one can do this alone. While Johnson was fighting for her right to be an engineer, she was fighting for the rights of so many others. "She was a tremendous bridge builder," Shetterly said. "Truly a humanitarian spirit."
"When you have talents, you make deposits in those banks so others can draw from them," she said.
This group of women, Shetterly said, "prove that women are good at math, excellent engineers. People from different backgrounds can come together around a common mission and achieve success we've never imagined."
With their alliances with the white male engineers, she said, "the differences just melted into the background."
Transitioning to the computer age
Dorothy Vaughn began at NASA in 1943, first year they started hiring black women as mathematicians, and became the first black supervisor in the history of NASA.
"We rely on electronic computers for everything we do today," said Shetterly. "Back then, the engineers relied on these women."
Bringing the industry from doing something by hand to having a machine that took up the entire room was a big transition.
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"It's what happens with all technology," Shetterly said. "You either jump over, bridge the gap, or you get left behind."
Vaughn, at the time, was in her 50s. She had spent a decade as a math teacher, and another twenty years as a mathematician. Despite her age, Vaughn remained curious, said Shetterly, which was the key to her success. "She was interested enough in technology to embrace it and acquire a whole new skill set," said Shetterly. "She wanted to be on that side of the gap."
Illustrating a larger story
The fact that black women were recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the south during the days of segregation defies our expectation and challenges much of what we think we know about American history.
Yet these weren't the only women doing computing at the time—they were also doing computing in the army, codebreakers in World War II, worked in jet propulsion labs.
"We can dispel the myth that anybody has to be or look a certain way to be a successful mathematician or scientist," Shetterly said.
SEE: Closing the tech gender gap: How women can negotiate a higher salary (TechRepublic)
"As late as 1970, just 1% of American engineers were black," Shetterly wrote—a figure that went up to only 2% by 1984.
But the story of these African American women brings to light a larger story as well—of all women overlooked in tech.
According to a 1994 study by Beverly Golemba, Shetterly wrote, "several hundred" women had been employed by Langley. Shetterly thinks it's closer to 1000. Yet today, we still have conversations about the lack of women in tech, struggling to overcome the myth that women are not as talented in math and science.
But if we can learn anything from the story of these women, it's this: Any preconceptions about the natural limitations of black women in math and science—and women everywhere—should be thrown out the window.
"Today, we have the idea that mathematics is not for women," said Shetterly. "At the time, it was women's work."
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- Facebook and YouTube execs are among the world's most powerful women, says Forbes (ZDNet)
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.