The story of the space race has been told from a million angles. But there’s one perspective that our pop culture has long overlooked: the voices of African American women who worked at NASA as mathematicians.
In her upcoming book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly describes the lives of women like Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson who played significant roles in Americans getting into orbit and then to the moon. They worked as NASA’s first computers, crunching numbers long before the invention of the hardware we call computers today.
Hidden Figures is set to come out in September and on its heels will be a film adaptation starring none other than Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer. Last Friday, Fox Searchlight released the first photos from the film—and they look awesome.
From left: Janelle Monáe, left, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures.
I got the chance to talk with Shetterly about her research a few months ago. She explained how the women who worked at NASA in the Mad Men era had to navigate a culture that was ingrained with sexism and racism, but they found joy in their jobs, too. “A lot of these women were very active in their communities, very active in organizations that were fighting for civil rights and that were working in their communities to make these changes. They acknowledged these horribly difficult parts of going to work each day in that situation. But at the same time, they loved their jobs,” said Shetterly. It sounds like the stars of Hidden Figures are determined the bring that nuance to the screen. “This is a female-driven movie about contributions that women really made, to our world, not just our society,” Octavia Spencer told The New York Times last week. “That’s a big statement.”
Listen to our interview with Margot Lee Shetterly about Hidden Figures: