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    ‘Ordinary’ black women who did extraordinary work at NASA

    Margot Lee Shetterly thought nothing of the black female scientists who peopled her childhood world in Hampton, VA. Her father was a research scientist at the Langley Research Center in her hometown and he worked with them.

    While visiting her parents as an adult, Shetterly’s Maine-born husband marveled at the stories her father told about the black women whom she had seen often at her father’s workplace. Some of them were women who went to her church or shopped at the local grocery store.

    “It was a moment when I said I don’t know anything about them,” Shetterly said recently during a book tour in Philadelphia. “I had to figure out where it all began. After looking at the history, I couldn’t stop until I got to the bottom of it.”

    NASA black scientists

    The movie stars and the women they portray. At left, Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson; Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan. Photo from hiddenfigures.com

    The story of these African American women – and white women, too – is a history that is much too often lost inside American history. They were the first women to work in what would become NASA, using their mathematical skills to help upgrade and design aircraft, and then contributing to the country’s space program.

    One of them was Katherine Johnson – now 98 years old, who started at NASA in 1953 – along with Mary Jackson, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, Bonnie Kathaleen Land, who was Shetterly’s Sunday School teacher, and many others.

    Three of the women are featured in the new movie “Hidden Numbers” arriving in theaters on Jan. 13, 2017. Johnson will be played by Taraji P. Henson, Vaughn by Octavia Spencer and Jackson by Janelle Monae. The movie is based on Shetterly’s book of the same title that was published in September, in tandem with the movie – something that she admitted doesn’t happen often.

    NASA black scientists

    Margot Lee Shetterly signs a book at Philadelphia tour.

    Shetterly began her research of the women at the National Archives in Philadelphia about six years ago.

    Although the women were making history, they didn’t consider themselves history-makers, she said. Mary Jackson “said, ‘‘I loved my job,'” Shetterly said. “‘I was just doing my job. We were all doing our jobs.'” Added Shetterly: “It takes time, space and distance for things to be seen as history. … They saw themselves as participating in this exciting history-making endeavor.”

    The first black female scientists – all brains in their fields – appeared at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley in 1943 when the agency was in dire need of “100 Junior Physicists and Mathematicians, 100 Assistant Computers, 75 Minor Laboratory Apprentices, 125 Helper Trainees, 50 Stenographers and Typists,” Shetterly wrote in the book. The committee became NASA in 1958.

    NASA black scientists

    Christine Darden. Photo from black-ladies.org.

    These workers were called the “West Computers” before the word was applied to electronic computers. The designation pinpointed the segregated west-side area of the research center where they worked.

    They used their science and engineering skills to do math calculations on aircraft and eventually on space flight. Darden developed the sonic boom research program at NASA, and Johnson participated on the Mercury (with astronaut John Glenn) and Apollo missions. Shetterly’s father came on board in 1966 and retired in 2004.

    Life inside NASA was no picnic for the women. They suffered the same indignities inside as they did outside as African American women: separate bathrooms, “Colored Computers” sign on their dining room table (scientist Miriam Mann kept removing it). They also had to find housing on their own while the white computers were provided a dormitory.

    NASA black scientists

    Katherine Johnson at the Langley Research Center in 1966. NASA photo.

    “They were like Ben Franklin participating in an American experiment,” Shetterly said. Their jobs were classified, she added, so they talked very little about them.

    Shetterly said that she wrote the book as much for herself as for the women. “It was more motivation of (me) trying to figure out myself, who I was … what it means to be black in America, what it means to be a black woman, figuring out who I am without writing about myself.”

    Now that the book has been published, it has opened doors for her, she said. It has also changed the visits she has with her parents, who still live in Hampton. People now drop off books at their home for her to sign. “I used to go home and they’d have dinner (ready). Now I sit down with a stack of books (to autograph),” she said.

    Black female scientists at NASA

    Dorothy Vaughan, left; Leslie Hunter, center, and Vivian Adair at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

    The hardback book has no photos – there was no time to add them before publication- but the paperback will.

    Shetterly says she wants the book to show that these were “extraordinary but ordinary women who had both professional lives and personal lives, with families.” The book shows that ‘you can be these people,” she said.

    Katherine Johnson, she noted, “is someone who walks among us.”

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