By Margot Lee Shetterly
You will be asking yourself why you don’t already know this story. The answer isn’t simple, but Hidden Figures offers reasons – related to race and gender – why the work performed by American space agency Nasa’s black female mathematicians has been largely uncelebrated. Their calculations may have been crucial in the 20th-century space race, but few, among them Katherine Johnson, have the recognition of the likes of Neil Armstrong, even though their contributions made space missions possible. Among Johnson’s achievements was working out the exact time the lunar lander had to leave the moon’s surface to dock with the orbiting command service module. Author Margot Lee Shetterly counts almost 50 black women (though the number could be 70, with more research) who, from 1943 through to 1980, were computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists at what became the Langley Research Centre, Nasa’s oldest field centre, in Virginia. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures has been adapted for the big screen. Read the book before seeing the movie.