Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: Margot Lee Shetterly

By Lynn Willoughby

Hidden Figures ~ Margot Lee Shetterly

“Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rulers and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.”
So – why didn’t we know this? Because most of these exceptionally bright women were African American. The only reason they were called into service at all was because of the labour shortages of WWll.
Even in the heady atmosphere of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratories in Virginia, they were separated from their white counterparts. Separate bathrooms were often a huge issue as aeronautical engineers began to prefer certain women to work with and take them off base. One of these women had to walk two miles to a bathroom, and back.
This book deals with many things – the cold war, the civil rights movement, school segregation and the space race. However, it is very human and we come to know these amazing women and their families, both professionally and in their leisure time. They forged their own alliances, they changed their lives and the lives of their children. They changed history.
One of my favourite anecdotes from the book is when John Glenn didn’t really trust the calculations of the IBM computer and asked “the girl” (Katherine Johnson) to personally double check the numbers for the projectories of the orbital mission.
And while this book will frustrate you and inspire you, it will also make you realize how historians can and do skew history. How many other brilliant minds never realized their potential and were in fact called “sub professionals” when they were not allowed to get an engineering degree and were paid significantly less than whites doing the same work?
This book is a worthwhile read, and left me with many question and a lot of judgments. Yes, these women were important to the race to put man on the moon (think white and just men). What else have we been missing from history?

Who Knew?

Yuri Gagarin was a Russian Soviet pilot and the first human to journey into outer space on April 12, 1961. He was in an apprenticeship program to become a foundryman, graduated from seventh grade and volunteered for weekend training as a Soviet air cadet in 1951. He earned extra money as a part time dock labourer on the Volga River.

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