Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly

Overview -

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.  Read more...

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More About Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

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 rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley s all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country s future.


From our buyer, Jordan Weinmann: "This amazing book about black women working at NASA opened my eyes to so many things. These women worked alongside engineers and astronauts to calculate how to project rockets and spaceships into space, all while living in the Jim Crow south. Be sure to read this book before you see the movie this January starting Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer."

  • ISBN-13: 9780062363596
  • ISBN-10: 006236359X
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Company
  • Publish Date: September 2016
  • Page Count: 368
  • Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.25 pounds

Related Categories

Books > History > African American
Books > History > Women
Books > Mathematics > History & Philosophy

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-08-29
  • Reviewer: Staff

Shetterly, founder of the Human Computer Project, passionately brings to light the important and little-known story of the black women mathematicians hired to work as computers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va., part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's precursor). The first women NACA brought on took advantage of a WWII opportunity to work in a segregated section of Langley, doing the calculations necessary to support the projects of white male engineers. Shetterly writes of these women as core contributors to American success in the midst of a cultural "collision between race, gender, science, and war," teasing out how the personal and professional are intimately related. She celebrates the skills of mathematicians such as Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Hoover, whose brilliant work eventually earned them slow advancement but never equal footing. Shetterly collects much of her material directly from those who were there, using personal anecdotes to illuminate the larger forces at play. Exploring the intimate relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development, Shetterly crafts a narrative that is crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights. A star-studded feature film based on Shetterly's book is due out in late 2016. (Sept.)

BookPage Reviews

Smashing stereotypes, solving equations

The “hidden figures” in the title of Margot Lee Shetterly’s new book will not be hidden much longer. This story of African-American female mathematicians who made a significant impact on the Space Race has already been optioned for a film due out in January. It’s a surprising story, even more so for how long it took to be told.

Shetterly profiles several of the women who, upon realizing that their math skills qualified them for a better living than they could make doing virtually anything else, pulled up stakes and decamped for Hampton, Virginia, in some cases leaving husbands and children behind. Once there, they attempted to make their way into the middle class even as they chafed at the restrictions placed on them by segregation. One of the “Colored Computers,” as they were called, drew the line at a cafeteria sign designating one table as theirs. Sick of the reminder, she pulled down the sign and shoved it in her purse. 

Working for the NACA, as it was then known, to design the bombers flown during World War II led to employment with NASA as the Cold War generated frantic U.S. efforts to surpass Russia. If Shetterly’s prose is sometimes dry, the material it covers is fascinating and loaded with victories large and small for these highly skilled and tenacious workers. 

Shetterly writes about Katherine Johnson, one of the “computers” described in near-mythic terms by a growing fan club, as representative of the America we aspire to be. Her description could apply to any of the women profiled in Hidden Figures: “She has been standing in the future for years, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.”


This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews