This month we are reading Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a spellbinding nonfiction book about the women who made the space race possible. You can join us to discuss this book at Arden Dimick Book Club at 10:30AM on September 23, 2017.
Margot Lee Shetterly is a passionate advocate of preserving and publicizing the contributions that Black women have made to science. Here are some interviews with her:
On the importance of imagination:
Writing this book helped me understand just how powerful imagination is: having the clarity of mind to see the world as it is and then to see it as it might be. That’s what this whole thing is. That’s what “Star Trek” was: We don’t know how to make an ideal society, but we’re going to portray that, and then we’re going to work backward. I think that’s why science fiction — despite the dystopian parts — comes out of this super ideal that, eventually, we will get to some better place where we actually live up to our ideals. Without imagination, I don’t think there’s any progress.
On growing up in the world of NASA (her father worked there):
I did know them growing up. My dad worked with Mary Jackson very closely at one point. I knew Katherine Johnson as well. They were all part of this group of Black engineers and scientists within this larger NASA community. So these people on one weekend would go to the HBCU Alumni Association Dance, and then the next weekend they would go off to the National Tech Association where they would put on their science hats and be together and talk about that.
There was no disconnect between those parts of their identities; it was very normal. But you know, while I knew the women; I didn’t know their story and how they got there. It was really my husband who helped spark the idea. We were visiting my parents almost exactly six years ago and had run into one lady who is a Sunday School teacher, and my dad was talking about the work that she’d done, and it just turned into this larger conversation about these different women. My husband was like, “This is amazing! Wait a minute nobody knows about this!” And I was like, “Wow, I don’t know this story.” That was really the beginning of me saying, “OK, I need to know this story.” Six years later here we are.
On Katherine Johnson and John Glenn:
She started working at Langley in 1953. … Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth. One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn’s flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
You know, the Russians had got a real head-start into space; America was playing catch-up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.
But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson — he actually asked “the girl”; all of the women working at that time were referred to as “girls.”
And he said: Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, you know, I’m good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.
So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.