In February 1960, as NASA progresses on the Mercury Project, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical, a black college in Greensboro, North Carolina stage a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, the movement spreads across the South, with protestors often violently arrested. Hampton Institute is the first school outside North Carolina to stage a protest. Many of the students know Rosa Parks because she’d taken a job at the university after being blacklisted from employment in Montgomery, Alabama, where she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
Shetterly puts the beginning of the Space Race in the context of the Civil Rights movement, which is also making headlines and helping to change the trajectory of the country at this point. Not only is this period a time of massive scientific and technological change—it’s also a time of serious social and political transformation. Neither process occurs in a vacuum and both influence the other.
Christine Mann, an 18-year-old Hampton junior is earning a teaching certificate and a degree in the sciences. She joins the protests and the voter registration drives organized at Hampton. Some of the activists believe the astronauts are contributing to the student organizing, but this is an unconfirmed rumor. Still, the spirit of the space race infects everyone and helps motivate the activists in their own mission.
Christine Mann, who attends school near Langley, will be deeply influenced by this period of scientific and political change as she grows up. Notice how her journey begins like that of Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy, all of whom studied teaching or worked as teachers before coming to Langley.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s governor Lindsay Almond gives in and reopens Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Front Royal schools in 1959, moving the state closer to integration. In Prince Edward County, the entire school system is defunded so that it won’t have to integrate. Black parents have to send their children to relatives around the state so they can go to school. These schools stay closed for five years, creating a group of affected children known as the “Lost Generation,” some of whom never make up for what they lost in education. Virginia, first in the US in science, is also last when it comes to educating its children.
White leaders undermine the well-being of citizens in their own counties in the interest of keeping blacks out of the schools. Their actions have devastating long term effects. It’s ironic that the state known for its scientific innovation continues to be nationally known for its incredibly broken public school system.
Langley begins to desegregate more rapidly. Dorothy Vaughan and the rest of the remaining West Area computers join other engineering groups. Dorothy goes to work with the advanced electronic computers—room-sized IBM machines—alongside white women, and men too, as they become a launch pad to a new career. Here ends the era of computing being thought of as women’s work.
The end of the West Area computing office also marks the end of the era Dorothy knew when she joined the NACA. Dorothy helps control her own fate by learning how to code and therefore making herself indispensable. Decades have passed, but she must continually achieve at the highest level to keep her job at Langley.
Dorothy teaches herself FORTRAN, the programming language for IBM computers. NASA purchases more computers to support its dream of spaceflight. It also sets up a network of communications stations around the globe to track the radio signal of Project Mercury on its flight.
Just because Dorothy has been at Langley for a long time doesn’t mean she’s safe or that she can relax into her seniority there—instead, she must reinvent herself if she wants to continue to have control over her destiny and her children’s future.
The launch date for Project Mercury moves to 1961. That year, the US cuts diplomatic ties with Cuba. President Eisenhower, in his farewell speech, rails against the military-industrial complex. On March 6, President John F. Kennedy announces executive order 10925, which mandates affirmative action to ensure equal opportunity for all employees and applicants. In April of that year, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space and the first human to orbit Earth, hastening NASA on its mission to send an American into space.
Executive Order 10925 marks a major step forward in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the workplace, while Russia’s manned space mission pushes the scientists at Langley to get their own astronauts into space. It’s not often that we see these two elements of history in juxtaposition, much less that we see the direct impact of one on the other. In this way Shetterly reminds us that African-American history is American history.
After some failed launches involving chimpanzees and capsules, astronaut Alan Shepard completes the first suborbital flight, which lasts fifteen minutes and 22 seconds and covers 303 miles. After that, President Kennedy calls for the U.S. to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. NASA needs many more resources than Langley can handle, and so they move to Houston. Katherine stays in Virginia.
By including Katherine alongside President Kennedy and the astronauts in this section about the status of US spaceflight, Shetterly implies that Katherine will play a major role in the scientific progress still to come.