The ‘Hidden Figures’ Who Helped NASA Win The Space Race

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The untold story of the black women — mathematicians — who helped NASA win the space race. We’ll talk to the author of “Hidden Figures.”

Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden in a photo from their days as NASA employees. (Courtesy the New Journal and Guide / William Morrow)
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden in a photo from their days as NASA mathematicians. (Courtesy the New Journal and Guide / William Morrow)

Think of NASA and the early days of the space race, and you’re likely to envision a bunch of white guys in crew cuts and chunky glasses at Mission Control. Behind the scenes, there was another, most unlikely reality: a crew of black women doing the math that would guide those American rockets into space and home again. Their story is about to be a big movie with Taraji P. Henson and more. We’ve got the woman who wrote it. This hour On Point: the black women who steered the space race.

-Tom Ashbrook


Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the new book, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race.” Creator of the Human Computer Project. (@margotshetterly)

Dr. Dava Newman, deputy administrator of NASA. Former professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design.” (@davaexplorer)

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: Uncovering a Tale of Rocket Science, Race and the ’60s — "Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known. Both women are starring in 'Hidden Figures,' a forthcoming film that tells the astonishing true story of female African-American mathematicians who were invaluable to NASA’s space program in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s."

Vanity Fair: Katherine Johnson, the NASA Mathematician Who Advanced Human Rights with a Slide Rule and Pencil — "With a slide rule and a pencil, Katherine advanced the cause of human rights and the frontier of human achievement at the same time. Having graduated from high school at 14 and college at 18 at a time when African-Americans often did not go beyond the eighth grade, she used her amazing facility with geometry to calculate Alan Shepard’s flight path and took the Apollo 11 crew to the moon to orbit it, land on it, and return safely to Earth."

New York: The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race — "It was on a trip to the post office during the spring of 1943 that Dorothy Vaughan spied the notice for the laundry job at Camp Pickett. But the word on another bulletin also caught her eye: mathematics. A federal agency in Hampton, Virginia, sought women to fill a number of mathematical jobs having to do with airplanes. The bulletin, the handiwork of Melvin Butler and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ personnel department, was most certainly meant for the eyes of the white, well-to-do students at the all-female State Teachers College there in Farmville. The laboratory had sent application forms, civil-service examination notices, and booklets describing the NACA’s work to the school’s job-placement offices, asking faculty and staff to spread the word about the open positions among potential candidates."

Read An Excerpt Of "Hidden Figures" By Margot Lee Shetterly

Space X And The Privatization Of Space Exploration

Mike Wall, senior writer for (@michaeldwall) Communication  Satellite Lost in SpaceX Rocket Explosion Was Co-Leased by Facebook -- "A satellite co-leased by Facebook and intended to bring internet access to parts of sub-Saharan Africa, was destroyed on a launchpad in Florida today (Sept. 1), when the rocket meant to carry it to space exploded. The explosion occurred at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT (1307 GMT) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The AMOS-6 communications satellite was scheduled to launch on Saturday (Sept. 3), and was already secured atop a Falcon 9 rocket, built by Elon Musk's private spaceflight company SpaceX."

This program aired on September 6, 2016.


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