Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

‘Hidden Figures’ book is a story that takes off for many

The next time you go to an airport to catch a flight somewhere, take a break from your laptop or phone to look, and I mean really look, at the airplane that just rolled up to a nearby gate.

Once upon a time, a plane would have discharged a flight crew and passengers who were all white, all dressed up and all certain that America was the greatest nation in the world, and that the apartheid that existed in the South was the only thing that stood between us and Communism.

Today, people of all races, creeds, colors, national origins and political views not only fly the planes, but fly on them. Many see diversity as a strength, not a weakness of America.

But, just for today, look at the plane. Look at the wings. Why are they attached to the plane that way? What are those things on the wing? Why are the wings swept back like that? And who designed that tail? Why does it look that way?

The movie “Hidden Figures” is mostly the usual Hollywood treacle with a strong dose of truth, I must say, but in the book you get the whole story in all its glorious and challenging complexity.

The story by Margot Lee Shetterly is partially her own. She returns to her hometown in Virginia and her parents talk about the people in her community. Nearly all of them worked for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at the Langley Research Center, and their stories are the heart of “Hidden Figures.”

The conquest of the sky was fairly easy compared to winning the battle for equality. Virginia was a state that fought integration and equality between the races with every fiber of its being, and its politicians were determined that black people would always ride in the back of the bus, be educated in their “separate but equal” schools and eat in their own cafeterias.

But the federal government’s installations did offer a bit of a refuge.

It was a product of necessity. During World War II, NACA desperately needed smart people, and the country’s white population simply couldn’t provide enough trained mathematicians to do all the calculations needed to improve American aircraft before they left for combat in the skies over Europe and Japan.

More out of that desperation than a desire to make a social statement, NACA’s managers began recruiting blacks to work at Langley as “computers,” the people who did the engineers’ math and helped figure out how to squeeze every ounce of performance from an aircraft.

From “black colleges” in the region, they flowed into Langley, filled out forms, swore a loyalty oath and sat down at desks in the segregated West Area Computing Unit, and they saved the world for us.

Before American planes went to war, they went to Langley to be “cleaned up.” The process involved vast amounts of math as well as the removal of bumps and other interruptions to smooth airflow that could slow an airplane down or cut into its maneuverability.

The “computers” had to navigate a society outside the gates of Langley, and often inside, where Jim Crow was worshipped above all. Many engineers didn’t care what color the “computers” were so long as the numbers were right, but plenty of white workers resented having black people around, and outside the gates the rule was segregation, all the way, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

The end of the war seemed to mean the end of good times for the black computers, but then the advancing technology and the needs of the Cold War intervened. While some left Langley to navigate the segregated higher education still in force for more advanced degrees and in pursuit of goals such as becoming an engineer, many stayed and found advancement as their managers realized their worth and rewarded their skills and motivation.

Computers often left the West Unit to work directly with engineers on projects such as improving wind tunnels, developing and improving the delta wing, developing and improving swept wings and many, many more aviation areas.

As the Space Age dawned, some moved into the rocket teams that were forming and began looking at orbits, trajectories and the effects of heating on re-entry.

Sputnik was a shock to the system, and the work picked up dramatically as the nation pondered the Soviet challenge. One evening in 1958, the workers left their offices and slide rules at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and returned the next day to a new agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA was pushing the envelope, as the test pilots would say, but for blacks at NASA the biggest challenges were not just at work. Virginia fought integration, as mentioned above, and even after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision some school districts resisted integration to the point that one Virginia school district even shut down its schools for several years.

One white parent insisted to a newspaper reporter that she’d rather have her children grow up ignorant than have them sit next to a black child in a classroom.

(Florida, another big NASA site, had its own issues. Manatee County did not integrate its high schools until 1969, and only then after fights and race riots.)

Just as today people might declare, “Free health care, then free housing, then Communism,” back then people said, “Integration, then Communism.”

But the “hidden figures” kept on calculating and kept on making progress. The technology advanced, and so did their skills. They loved their work, they loved America and they loved NASA and its missions.

Author Shetterly had to work hard to get these stories out, and some of them still haven’t been told. Many years have passed, most of those whose efforts got us into space have passed on or are in the realm of very old age, but those who are still around remember the days when they were young and doing the math that made our nation great and proud.

Today, segregation is part of a shameful past that is still so hurtful to many people. The “hidden figures” had to fight for something white folks take for granted: the right to go to school and get the best education and training, and to live where they wanted to live. Nearly every step of the black folks’ lives had to be taken carefully, and in trips through the Jim Crow South to visit friends and relatives they had to be careful not to anger a white person or persons on the way. The result could be fatal.

The movie, of course, is the usual Hollywood stuff, but it has its value. If it encourages people to pursue their goals and dreams, it will have done its job.

I would more highly recommend the book over the movie, though, to get the full flavor of the accomplishments of the “hidden figures.”

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February 18, 2017 - Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , ,

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