Sputnik circles in the sky. Americans are frustrated, scared and furious. It seems as if the Russian foray into space marks the end of American global dominance. From where Katherine stands, however, Sputnik looks like a new beginning for the NACA. With aerial dominance assured and supersonic military aircraft a concrete reality, it is time for a new revolution in engineering. The Flight Research Division is ready to take on the problem of space travel.
America teeters on the edge of losing its global military dominance, but Katherine sees this shift as a moment of opportunity rather than insecurity. She’s more than ready to take on the challenge. It’s this consistently forward-thinking attitude that allows her to overcome not only racism and gender discrimination, but also the major technological obstacles facing her field.
The NACA had historically avoided the issue of space. Congress didn’t want the organization to waste money on “science fiction” dreams of manned spaceflight. The technical library carried very few books on spaceflight.
Up to this point, space has not been a priority for the U.S. government. Spaceflight researchers will be starting almost from zero and building the space program from the ground up.
Still Langley engineers enjoy imagining the trajectories of missile bodies and rocket engines as they enter space. Now the engineers get full reign to exercise their creativity. Flight Research works with PARD (the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division) to develop rockets. Katherine is excited to use her talents and potential to push American flight to its next stage.
Just as Langley boomed during WWII, a new boom is about to begin, offering new opportunities for innovation. Katherine, as ever, is in the right place at the right time and more than ready to take on the challenge, her persistence once again countering the idea that black women aren’t as capable in the sciences as white men.
Dorothy Vaughan now works out of the building that housed the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, Building 1251. She’s been downsized to an office there. The West Area computing group has been disbanded, and now each research team manages its own computers. But Dorothy, unlike the others, hasn’t found a new job, because she doesn’t have a specialized skill or area of research expertise. Dorothy still presides over the West Area computers, but their presence is no longer central to the NACA’s performance.
While Dorothy benefitted from the boom surrounding World War II, the Space Race puts her job at risk. In this way Shetterly shows us that, though Katherine thrives in this new environment, the position of black women—and women in general—at Langley is still by no means ensured.
The West Area computers have done a lot to integrate the NACA, normalizing the presence of brown faces at company-wide functions and picnics. They’ve helped put in place the sense of community that will allow black mathematicians and engineers to thrive there in later years. This work happens in the context of people like A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks who fought to make segregation illegal. Langley begins to integrate in keeping with the law, though the state of Virginia continues to resist. Southern Democrats pass laws that give the legislature the right to close any public school that tries to integrate. But the NACA is integrating naturally, whether Virginia likes it or not.
Integration doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a slow process that comes about as the result of new legislation, activists’ efforts to change the laws, and the bravery of individuals like the black computers. These efforts take years, extraordinary community mobilization, and massive amounts of manpower before they begin to have real world impact, even as the NACA itself progresses in leaps and bounds when it comes to technological innovation.
To win over countries repelled by the U.S.’s attitude towards racial relations, the government has to relinquish some of its dedication to racism. The NACA’s chief legal counsel writes in 1956 that the NACA should put an end to the double-standard regarding race that exists within the United States. In 1958, the US government fuses the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its other military agencies together to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.
Desegregation of the NACA and the birth of NASA go hand in hand. Shetterly juxtaposes these two events to show us that the massive technological shifts happening at this time didn’t happen in a racial vacuum—they were in the context of broader (and complicated) racial shifts. The history of desegregation is as significant to the development of the United States as the evolution of its space technology.
NASA will be the highly visible successor to the NACA. Everything it does will be made public to the American people and to the world. The NACA expands greatly in size, with its number of research centers and employees increasing almost exponentially. Around this time, the West Area Computers Unit is dissolved. The women left behind, including Dorothy Vaughan, have to find a new place for themselves.
This is the beginning of modern space technology as we know it now. With this new age comes the end of an old era, which Dorothy struggled to help integrate so that this one could be born.