RAVE REVIEWS by Jean E. Eustance
This summer’s reading program was “A Universe of Stories.” With that in mind, last month I reviewed The Astronauts Wives Club. It covered the years 1959 to 1972 and was about the Race to the Moon. The next book, Hidden Figures, starts in 1943 during World War II and ends in the present, with the epilogue. The book covers a great many changes to American life. You could say it is “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is written by Margot Lee Shetterly. It is upstairs in Adult Services, in the non-fiction part of the Pine Bush Area Public Library. It is about the black women who worked as “human computers” for first NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and later for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) The lives and careers of four women are the main focus. They are Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden. This is a deep and intense book, and it deals with many different people (not only these four) and their struggles to be treated as dignified human beings.
When I hear the word “computer” I think of machines that make life more complicated. Originally “computers” meant “people who can compute” or, in other words, people who are astonishingly good with math. And these women were astonishingly good. What nowadays is done by soulless machines was done back then by women with adding machines, paper and pencils. It was the math to get rockets up and down and, when they were manned, to get the men back to earth in one piece. John Glenn was one of them: the first American to orbit the earth.
NASA was using IBM computers, but some people wanted the human computers to check on those numbers. Shetterly writes “Every engineer and mathematician had a story of double-checking the machines’ data only to find errors…The human computers crunching all those numbers—now that the astronauts understood. The women mathematicians dominated their mechanical calculators the same way the test pilots dominated their mechanical planes…Spaceship-flying computers might be in the future, but that didn’t mean John Glenn had to trust them. He did, however, trust the brainy fellas who controlled the computers. And the brainy fellas who controlled the computers trusted their computer, Katherine Johnson…therefore, John Glenn trusted Katherine Johnson. The message got through…”Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go.”
On page 223, the book reads, “Katherine organized herself immediately at her desk, growing phone-book-thick stacks of data a number at a time…She worked through every minute of what was programmed to be a three-orbit mission….At the end of the task, every number in the stack of papers she produced matched the (mechanical) computer’s output…The pressure might have buckled a lesser individual, but no one was more up to the task than Katherine Johnson.
“God speed, John Glenn,” and he got into space and safely back down thanks in part to Katherine Johnson, the human computer. Nowadays she is called a “retired NASA mathematician” and she is 100 years old and she has written her autobiography. Atheneum Books for Young Readers is bringing out her story, Reaching for the Moon. It is for middle readers. It is now in the Junior Biography Section of the Pine Bush Area Public Library.
Back to Hidden Figures. It’s not all “God speed.” The book starts in 1943 at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia. The black women joined the West Computers. White women joined the East Computers. Then there’s the cafeteria, which was segregated. “Most groups sat together out of habit. For the West Computers, it was by mandate. A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS.
This is a book I can’t do justice to in a review. There is so much more to it than I can tell you about. Many different people and many situations make it a dense and strong book. Margot Lee Shetterly has moved heaven and earth to write about the black women and their families in the space program. And she says that she has not been able to cover everything that she had intended. So you must read this book for yourself, to get the true measure of it. Find it in the non-fiction section in Adult Services in the Pine Bush Area Public Library. And look in Chapter Twenty-Three, “To Boldly Go” for the conversation between the actress Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura of Star Trek) and Martin Luther King, Jr. She was thinking of leaving the show in 1967. Dr. King convinced her to stay. “You can’t leave the show,” King said to Nichols. “We are there because you are there.” There—in the future on a starship which had no signs in its cafeteria about who could sit where.