In March 1958, the US government wants to make sure Americans know space exploration is in the best interest of everybody for reasons that include national defense, global prestige, and the opportunity to expand human knowledge. Katherine and her colleagues at Langley try to learn everything they can about space, using their knowledge of flying vehicles to teach themselves how to build spacecraft. They all know they are facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Nothing less than America’s image as a world leader is at stake. That means Katherine will have a chance to prove herself and make foundational contributions to this period in U.S. history. Katherine knows how important this moment is, and she knows how to use it to her advantage. The daring and bravery that are integral to her character will prove to be of particular importance now.
Katherine gets the chance to advance in her career by preparing charts and equations for space technology lectures. She uses what she’s learned under Dr. Claytor to write a textbook for space travel in real time. She wants to go to the lectures and editorial meetings where important scientific research reports are reviewed, scrutinized, and stress-tested, but she is not granted entry because she is a woman.
Though Dr. Claytor didn't get to fulfill his dreams, he pushed Katherine to fulfill hers, and she did. However, even though she’s made huge strides, benefitted from the support of others, and written textbooks demonstrating her expertise in her field, her gender holds her back. This is par for the course at the time, though deeply frustrating.
Langley’s research process is incredibly grueling. The authors of reports at the NACA face off against four or five experts on their topic. After they present their findings, the researcher has to answer many questions and comments. The point is to find any inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or illogical statements buried in the text. After that, the report is subject to intense critical review of its grammar and clarity. It can take months or years for a scientific report to make it to publication.
Shetterly focuses a great deal on how hard it was to work at Langley as a woman or a person of color. Here she delves into how rigorous and demanding the work was for all scientists, showing just how unique Katherine was to have made it this far. Not only did she have to overcome racial and gender discrimination, she also had to be the best of the best in her field.
Katherine sits with the engineers outside these meetings and asks many, many questions about the scope of their work. She also asks why she isn’t allowed to attend the editorial meetings. When they tell her it just isn’t done, she continues to press the issue.
In 1958, women have to balance being coy with being aggressive. Men analyze the data women produce but they don’t think of women as peers. Women are interested in the work the men do but they are not allowed to do it. The most ambitious women have to strategize to advance in their careers. Katherine’s confidence drives her to fight until she is finally allowed to join the editorial meetings of the Guidance and Control Branch of Langley’s Flight Research Division, which will soon become the Aerospace Mechanics Division of NASA.
The Flight Research Division is doing some of the most innovative work of its time and the fact that Katherine, a black woman, finally gets to attend the editorial meetings points to massive social change and hard-won progress for all African Americans, while demonstrating how extraordinary Katherine is as a person.