Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars,
At perhaps no other moment in US history would stories of the first female mathematicians and engineers at NASA resonate as they do following the 2016 presidential election. Both Nathalia Holt and Margot Lee Shetterly describe the lives of previously obscure women “computers” who worked for NASA during the earliest phases of America’s space program. Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race tells the story of African American computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. Holt’s book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, focuses on women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California. Both books slant toward popular, nonacademic audiences; a film adaptation of Shetterly’s book receives nationwide release this month (Hidden Figures, 20th Century Fox, 2016).
Shetterly and Holt are part of a growing contingent of journalists and historians seeking to peel back the veneer of existing institutional histories of NASA facilities and give insight into the lives of the hundreds of thousands of workers who propelled the space program from floundering rocket development to the Sea of Tranquility and beyond. Each author found inspiration for her work in personal experiences. Shetterly was inspired by her own life in the African American community around Hampton. Holt found her subject by a more unusual path; she learned about one of the JPL engineers while searching online for name ideas for her first child.
Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures offer moving glimpses into the growing pains of professional development for women in the post–World War II and Cold War technical workplace. Women computers at Langley and JPL forged their own career paths, frequently walking fine lines between their expected roles as wives and mothers and their desire to gain personal fulfillment through their careers.
The computers’ experiences, however, were markedly different on the two sides of the country, particularly in terms of the racial and gender barriers they faced. Racial barriers were less overt at JPL, where women of multiple races and ethnicities worked in the same offices. In contrast, Langley was not integrated until the creation of NASA in 1958. Furthermore, at JPL, computer positions were not necessarily limited to women, whereas at Langley, computer positions were gender specific. But whether internally or externally enforced, at both locations women were pigeonholed into the role of computers, and they lacked advocates at management levels who might have made career advancement possible.
Both authors make excellent use of primary sources, including oral histories, NASA documents, and newspaper articles. When scholarly works are cited, however, it appears they are only used for technical information. In drawing back the curtain on their stories, neither Shetterly nor Holt takes advantage of the significant work by scholars of race and gender studies; doing so would have bolstered their narratives.
Shetterly and Holt also do not dig to the level of internal NASA policy, as Margaret Weitekamp did with her research on female pilots tested for astronaut training in Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), or relate the experiences of the female computers to the challenges faced by nonwhite males working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, as Richard Paul and Steven Moss do in their book We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program (University of Texas Press, 2015). Shetterly and Holt, unfortunately, miss the opportunity to use their stories to investigate bigger questions about the perception of and reaction to race and gender at NASA or movements for racial and gender equality.
As a woman historian, it was impossible not to feel thrilled and enlightened by the women in Hidden Figures and Rise of the Rocket Girls. Katherine Johnson, a passionate and talented mathematician whom Shetterly profiles, persisted in overcoming preconceptions of what women could contribute to human spaceflight. Susan Finley, a major figure in Holt’s book, continues to shape planetary exploration projects at JPL and inspires women professionals at the lab despite her lack of formal education.
Unfortunately, both authors tend to jump from personal to professional stories, and the sudden topic changes can be confusing and difficult to follow. Shetterly also does not distinguish clearly between the experiences of the characters she profiles and those of other women at Langley. Admittedly, telling the story of all women at Langley was not one of Shetterly’s goals, but the reader might wonder how common or uncommon the experiences of Johnson and the others were.
For narratives built on such a large number of oral histories, it was surprising not to hear more from other employees at NASA, particularly the engineers who supervised the women. The voices of those who benefited from their work would have added depth to the authors’ descriptions of the NASA work environments. Women mathematicians and engineers at Langley and JPL faced incredible odds in pursuing personal and professional goals simultaneously, but I never got a sense of what either set of women meant to the programs for which they worked. What is quite apparent is the remarkable strength of the communities the women built to support each other inside and outside the workplace.
Although neither Holt nor Shetterly engages with the breadth of existing scholarship on race and gender issues at NASA or its predecessors, they forge new pathways for additional investigations. Taking a multibiographical approach does complicate their narratives, but those complications are necessary to relate the stories. The female technical experts, well aware of their uniqueness in their fields and in their places of employment, played important roles in human and robotic spaceflight, despite decades of being hidden from public view. Uncovering and telling such stories will hopefully lead to deeper scholarly examinations that will enrich our understanding of what women of all backgrounds meant to NASA and what NASA continues to mean to young women interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Jennifer Levasseur is a museum curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, where she manages the astronaut camera collection. She is currently working on a book on the history of astronaut photography.