The “Hidden Figures” at NASA during the Space Race

You’ve heard of Neil Armstrong but what about Eunice Smith? In her book Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the human computers, a group of black female mathematicians who at the peak of the space race and the civil rights movement worked behind the scenes at NASA. Reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to Shetterly via Google Hangout.

TRANSCRIPT

You've heard of Neil Armstrong, but what about Eunice Smith?

In her book 'Hidden Figures,' Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the human computers, a group of black female mathematicians who at the peak of the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement worked behind the scenes at NASA.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to Shetterly via Google Hangouts.

Margot Lee Shetterly, thanks for being with us on Google Hangouts.

Thanks, Andrea.

I'm really glad to be here today.

So, in your book, 'Hidden Figures,' you explain the human computers who worked for NASA.

Who were the human computers?

It's really interesting, this term 'computer' because today, we think of the computer, you know, that we use to connect like we are right now, you know, and our telephones, our cars, our toasters, but a computer simply was a job title, you know?

Originally, it referred to somebody who computed or who did math all day, like these women did.

So before there was an electronic computer, there were rooms of people, usually women, who did all of the hard work of processing and analyzing data that came from things like aeronautical flight testing, which is what the predecessor to NASA spent all of their time doing.

So, that is, in a nutshell, what these women dedicated their professional lives to.

Earlier in history, around World War II, women got into computing because so many men were soldiers and were deployed, but what sort of precipitated these women who were working during the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race?

You know, just as you said, World War II, a lot of men, mathematicians, went off to fight.

This happened at the same time there was a skyrocketing need for aeronautical research because, you know, the airplane was a decisive factor in the Allied victory over the Axis forces in World War II.

But the specific event that led the black women to come to Langley was a gentleman named A. Phillip Randolph.

Now, everybody knows the name of Martin Luther King.

A. Phillip Randolph was a Civil Rights leader in the '40s, you know, the '30s, you know, somebody that we all used to know and has faded from history.

But he really pressed then-President Roosevelt to open the Federal Government, the Civil Service, Defense Industry, all of those jobs to African Americans.

President Roosevelt in 1941 signed an executive order integrating the federal government.

And about two years later, the first five black women walked through the door at what was then called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

And that moment is really where my book, 'Hidden Figures,' begins.

And getting them into the job roles is one thing, but then what was the work environment like once they got there?

Right, so, the work itself, you know, the black women and the white women essentially did the same kind of work, you know?

In the beginning in particular, they were organized into pools.

So the same idea that, you know, you hear about these secretarial pools where there are a lot of women and they would sort of send the work to the women in the pool, the women would do the work, and send it back.

Well, they, you know, decided this was also a really efficient way to deal with the computing work.

But because this happened in Virginia, because it was in the Jim Crow South, the women had to be separate.

So there was a white computing pool.

It was called the East Computing Pool because it was on the east of the campus, and there was a West Area Computing Pool, and that's where the black women were.

You know, following the law at that time, they were in a separate office, they had separate bathrooms, and a separate eating place in the cafeteria.

But they did the same work as their white counterparts.

So, following the real pioneers in that, the initial human computers, what was sort of the lasting impact and legacy in the culture at NASA?

So, my father, he's now retired, but he spent his entire career at NASA Langley as a research scientist.

He came in the late '60s, and by the time he got there, these women, these black women, had already been on the job for two decades.

We always think of, you know, men being the pioneers in civil rights and engineering and all these kinds of things, but the fact is, the first professional African Americans at NASA were actually women.

But these black women also opened the door and provided their shoulders to the next generation of black men who went in and became engineers.

In so many ways -- You know, they were on the job for decades, you know, they were sometimes literally hidden in the sense that they were in this different office, but, really, I think more accurately, we just didn't see them or pay attention to them, and yet, they were aeronautical ground troops, you know, ground troops of the Space Race.

We wouldn't have gotten those amazing moments like John Glenn circling the Earth and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, you know?

And we wouldn't have seen people who came, you know, later, like Christine Darden.

She was somebody who really was able to let her talent shine in her, you know, aeronautical Sonic Boom technology.

You look at the head of NASA -- a black man, Charlie Bolden, and a woman, Dava Newman, who is the Assistant Administrator, the Deputy Administrator.

They're leading the space agencies.

So, you know, I think the legacy of these women lives on in so many different places around us today.

And from what you learned for the research for your book and also from your father's career, what is the impact of having diversity within an agency like NASA that's doing research and working on these innovations?

You don't know if you have the best people if you haven't looked everywhere.

It's about looking everywhere to find the best talent, bringing them in, and then giving them the tools and providing the environment so they could succeed because, you know, when everybody succeeds, the entire organization does a lot better.

So 'Hidden Figures' is a really great example of that, where a door opened, these women came inside, and all of a sudden, they were able to help our country achieve some of the things that it wanted most.

And I think that's really what we want now, you know.

Our economy today is based on technology, and there's a lot of talk about -- how is America going to be competitive if it doesn't fill these technology jobs?

Well, I think, once again, what we have to do is look everywhere because if we reach out and find the right people, I think, yet again, we'll find that we're able to achieve more than we expected.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of 'Hidden Figures,' subsequently made into a movie, thanks so much for joining us.

It's been my pleasure.

Thanks for having me on.