The True Story of “Hidden Figures,” the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

A new book and movie document the accomplishments of NASA’s black “human computers” whose work was at the heart of the country’s greatest battles

Melba Roy
Melba Roy led the the group human computers who tracked the Echo satellites in the 1960s. (NASA)

As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.

Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. Her new book Hidden Figures shines light on the inner details of these women’s lives and accomplishments. The book’s film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is new open in theaters

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