Hidden and ignored
From numerous movies, TV shows and documentaries, scenes of Nasa’s control room all look the same: row upon row of desks manned by men in almost uniform white shirts and skinny black ties, each facing a bank of blinking monitors and oriented toward a huge screen that dominates the front of the room.
We’ve all taken such scenes for granted, little noticing the “missing” or “hidden” elements. For one, there are hardly any women in the control room, save for a few in more recent productions who are often depicted as wearing a military uniform. There are also hardly any people of color since Nasa is often assumed to be monoracial, a small elite community of white nerds and space freaks.
As former US president Bill Clinton once pointed out, this is not how “America looks like.” And neither, it turns out, was it what Nasa was all about, too, from almost the birth of the agency. For in truth, Nasa was a “rainbow” workplace even from its days as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (Naca), when its main line of work centered on airplanes, turbo jet engines and wind tunnels.
It was a segregated community, to be sure. While only a few black or African-American male engineers or mathematicians joined the ranks, Naca took part in a deliberate federal government drive to recruit women during World War II.
Mainly it was because there was a serious shortage of men, who were off fighting in the battlefields of Europe and Asia. But even with this serious handicap, it was believed that there would not be enough women to take on the onerous task of crunching the numbers that serious aeronautical (and later space) research demanded. Most of the women were recruited from the ranks of public school math teachers.
Still, even with the limited number of women admitted into its technical ranks, the agency applied the policies of its segregated locale, the southern state of Virginia. Women mathematicians, dubbed “human computers,” were set to work in separate groups, known as the West Computers and the East Computers, their separation enforced even in the restrooms and lunch room, with a table marked “for colored people.”
Working in an agency with an eye fixed on the future, even as they had to live in the decidedly earthbound concerns of “Jim Crow” laws enforced as part of the wrong-headed “separate but equal” principle, is the central irony faced by the African-American female math whizzes of the West room.
Though there were more than 100 women in Naca/Nasa’s rolls, their collective saga is told through the personal stories of four—Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden—who labored in near-anonymity and bided their time before their own individual merits were recognized or, in some cases, asserted in confrontations with their white male bosses.
These tales are told in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose own father retired from Nasa as a climate scientist and who knew personally some of the women she profiles. A movie of the same title was shown recently, but my sister, who sent me a copy of the book as a “get well soon” gift, declares the book is so much better than the cinematic version. I trust her opinion, since, although she now lives in San Diego, her family spent more than a decade in suburban Virginia and even in a so-called enlightened age experienced vestiges of the racial discrimination with which the “hidden figures” in the book had to cope.
The women, writes Shetterly, were not so much “hidden” as ignored and overlooked. The stings of racial discrimination surely hurt, but collectively, they chose not so much to ignore it as to subsume it beneath their deep love for mathematics and engineering, pride in their contributions to bring human beings to the moon, and within an enveloping environment of family, community and church.
Ultimately, this is a story of strength and grit, of steely determination and of nurturing a dream of reaching what had, in their girlhoods, been the unreachable heavens.
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