You probably haven’t heard of Hidden Figures. It’s not a big deal, just a small movie about black women who worked as human computers at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. It certainly doesn’t have “Oscar worthy” discussion surrounding it, and there’s no way it’s currently the biggest movie in the United States.
Oh, who am I kidding, Hidden Figures is all of those things, and for great reason! This movie that celebrates the accomplishments and contributions of black women to our space program (and the amazing book that it’s based on) is winning acclaim right and left. If you loved this movie, and would like to know more about women who worked on the space program or contributed to space science (and have since been lost to history), check out these amazing books.
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
While Hidden Figures tells the story of the black women breaking barriers in NASA’s Langley office, Holt’s story takes the reader to the west coast, to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which works on NASA’s unmanned robotic space missions. In the 1940s and 1950s, JPL recruited women of all different backgrounds (but mostly white women) to work as human computers, much like Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson did at Langley on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. Holt follows different women through the years at JPL, outlining their almost-forgotten contributions to our nation’s space program.
You’ve heard of the Mercury 7—Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn, just to name three of our nation’s first astronauts—but did you know that, in 1961, NASA selected 13 women to possibly be the first group of female astronauts? These women, dubbed the Mercury 13, endured the same invasive testing as their male counterparts, but in the end NASA scrubbed the program and didn’t send a woman into space until Sally Ride in 1983. The Mercury 13 recounts the events surrounding these women’s selection, and chronicles their amazing achievements, despite the cancellation of the program.
Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist by George D. Morgan
This biography of our first lady rocket scientist, as written by her son, is actually a bit of investigative journalism, as Morgan worked to uncover his mother’s story. In an era when women stayed at home, Mary Sherman Morgan decided that she wanted to be a chemist as a high schooler in 1938. Ten years later, she found herself working for North American Aviation, a company tasked with building the rockets that would take us to another world. When Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists couldn’t figure out the solution behind repeated rocket failures, North American turned to Mary. Her story hasn’t been told until now, but it’s an inspiration to be sure.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
You may not realize that employing women as human computers goes back long before NASA and the age of spaceflight. In the mid-1800s, Harvard University began using the wives, sisters, and daughters of their resident (male) astronomers as calculators, but later began employing women in their own right. In an age when photography was transforming the astronomy, it was women who were tasked with studying the photographic glass plates of the sky each day. Women made some of the biggest discoveries in astronomy in this era, heralding the beginning of the discipline of astrophysics, yet their contributions have largely been forgotten to history. Sobel’s book begins in the 1880s and continues all the way through the 1950s, celebrating the different women who worked over the years to advance our understanding of the universe.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Women in Science is as charming as it is beautifully illustrated, focusing on 50 different women from ancient history to present day who changed the world through science. Ignotofsky includes many “forgotten” women who were ahead of their time, profiling each on gorgeous full-color pages. This is a book you’ll keep on your shelf long after you’ve read it from cover to cover.
Bonus read: We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul and Steven Moss profiles just what the title says, 10 different black pioneers who worked in the space program. It’s not strictly about women, but as Hidden Figures featured the contribution of black women, it seemed fitting to include a book strictly about the first African American NASA employees on this list.
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space and sci-fi geek. You can find her on Twitter at @skrishna.