The Michigan Engineer News Center

The modern resonance of NASA’s “Hidden Figures”

Margot Lee Shetterly delivered a keynote discussing the lives and impact of the female African American mathematicians that “helped America win the space race.” | Medium Read
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IMAGE:  Margot Lee Shetterly delivering seminar at UM.

Countless individuals have helped shape the character and contributions of the University of Michigan across its 200-year history. Unfortunately, some of these influential figures have remained “hidden or unseen,” obscured by time and the social constructs of the era. A focus of Michigan’s bi-centennial celebration is to shed light on this embedded diversity and the quiet heroes behind engineering’s greatest triumphs.

On January 24, Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, delivered a keynote discussing the lives and impact of the female African American mathematicians that “helped America win the space race.” Shetterly estimated there may have been up to 1,000 women working for NASA as “computers” in the 1960’s, making the essential calculations that enabled America’s journey into orbit, and eventually, to the moon. Though acknowledging each of these women expressly “would have taken an encyclopedia,” Shetterly identified a common thread amongst their stories – “looking beyond:”

Only now are our eyes sharp enough to truly see [these individuals] and understand their contributions.Margot Lee Shetterly

“One of the motifs that they included in the movie is ‘looking beyond,’ referring to the innovative mathematics that was needed to calculate [the Apollo mission] trajectories. But that phrase has multiple layers of meaning. [It refers] to what the real-life women had to do just to work at NASA, what they had to do to receive excellent educations… their goal was not to stand out because of differences, but to stand-out because of their talent. They had to stand together with their colleagues to do something that had never been done before.”

Beyond the three trailblazing women detailed in-depth in the movie adaptation of Hidden Figures ­– Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – Shetterly spoke of several prominent University of Michigan alums:

“I wanted to mention a notable woman because of her extraordinary career and connection to Michigan – Dorothy Hoover. Dorothy was a human computer at Langley Laboratory who worked closely with Robert T. Jones [who identified the benefits of swept-back wings for high-speed aircraft]. Prior to joining NASA, she had been a teaching fellow at U-M, and in 1950, she was promoted to an aeronautical research scientist. I would also be remiss not to mention Michigan grads James Williams and Terrance Byrdsong, who were [among] the first black men hired as engineers at NASA.”

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IMAGE:  Author Margot Lee Shetterly shaking hands with AE Department Chair Dan Inman.

In her talk, Shetterly emphasized the necessity of discussing these individuals not as “exceptional,” but as “extraordinary, ordinary people:”

“Our job is to recognize the power in the extraordinary, ordinary people we encounter every day. The Einstein archetype is a stubborn thing – it no doubt contributes to the problem we have with filling [the aerospace industry’s diversity] pipeline. Once we see [these women] and really value their contributions, we have an obligation to tell their stories. They determine both our futures and the meaning of our past. They never lose their ability to change how we see others and how we see ourselves.”

Moving forward, Shetterly believes it essential that the lines between social identities continue to be blurred:

“It’s tempting to slot Hidden Figures into ‘black’ or ‘women’ history. We tend to talk [about these histories] as if they are totally removed from American or World War II or space history. Aviation history cannot be told without discussing African American history and the rights and importance of women in engineering… Only now are our eyes sharp enough to truly see [these individuals] and understand their contributions.”

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Kimberly Johnson
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Aerospace Engineering

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