Why Haven’t I Heard About Them Before? How Hidden Figures Came To Be

A “computer” used to be a person—not a machine. 

Margot Lee Shetterley first got the idea to write the book, Hidden Figures when she learned that her favorite Sunday School teacher had been a mathematician at NASA in the 1960s. Mrs. Land, a fellow African American woman, had worked as one of the “human computers.”

It was during a visit home to Hampton, Virginia in 2010 to visit her parents that Margot ran into Mrs. Land at church, and they had a chance to talk for a while. Although in her nineties, Mrs. Land wasn’t about to miss a Sunday service at First Baptist. 

Later as the family headed out for brunch, Margot’s dad mentioned that a lot of women around the area, black and white, had worked as computers during the 1960s. “And Katherine Johnson,” he said, “…calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts.” Margot’s husband, Aran asked, “Why haven’t I heard about them before?”

That was a good question. 

Within two weeks, Margot was sitting on the couch in Katherine Johnson’s living room. Above her head was a framed American flag that had been to the Moon. She listened to the ninety-three-year-old mathematician’s stories of working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory—especially during the time of segregation. Katherine was one of the “West Computers,” so called because as African American women, they had to work in a separate section on the west side. 

“Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine. I thought that’s just what black folks did.” – Margot Lee Shetterley

Astronaut John Glenn considered Katherine’s calculations so reliable that he specifically asked for her to double check the trajectory equations provided by the automated computers for his orbital mission in 1962. 

In the prologue to Hidden Figures, Margot writes that in growing up, she was used to African Americans working in science, math and engineering. “…growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine. …I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Margot’s father had joined Langley in 1964 and retired in 2004 as a respected climate scientist. Five of his seven siblings were engineers and technologists. And her mother was an English professor. 

It’s Margot’s hope that these amazing women’s stories brought to life in the book, and later in the movie, won’t be viewed as a separate history, but “as a part of the story we all know.”

There are so many people whose contributions to history are likely to remain hidden in this life. Until we get to Heaven, we may not get to see the truth of them all. Too few people have a Margot to champion their stories. But luckily in this case, they did. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Johnson died on Feb. 24, 2020 at age 101.

“These women’s paths set the stage for mine,” Margot writes, “immersing myself in their stories helped me understand my own.”