In 1957, John Glenn is picked for MA-6, the orbital flight that will determine whether the space agency gets to continue existing. He runs, lifts, and swims to make sure he’s physically fit and ready for the mission. He completes many simulations at Langley. Meanwhile, in Russia, Gherman Titov becomes the second man in space. Americans are disappointed and frustrated, and they wonder if NASA should be defunded. Finally, the spacecraft is ready to launch in 1962.
Shetterly builds tension here by outlining the competition between the Russians and the US and explaining both that the United State’s image of itself, and NASA’s very existence, hang in the balance. The events taking place at Langley will have both a global impact and a national one.
Astronauts resist computers because they are new. Glenn asks Katherine Johnson to double check the numbers that will send him into space. She is the only one he trusts to do the math correctly.
This is the historical moment that will put Katherine on the map. John Glenn is a celebrity, and, because he asks for Katherine’s help, she becomes a celebrity in her field too. This moment comes about as a result of serendipity—when Katherine’s hard work and preparedness collide with opportunity and chance.
Meanwhile, the number of black employees at Langley is growing, with many black engineers playing important roles in space flight and reaching higher ranks than they ever had before. West Computing no longer exists, but Dorothy Vaughan works with the new IBMs. Katherine Johnson plays the most immediate role in human spaceflight, but black engineers throughout the organization contribute to each mission. Everyone follows John Glenn’s trajectory into space with bated breath. Glenn lands safely back on Earth. Katherine and the rest of the team are celebrated, and Glenn receives a hero’s welcome.
Katherine and John Glenn’s destinies are entangled, and when he succeeds, she does also. His successful space flight ensures the future of NASA—but he couldn’t have done it without her. Katherine isn’t the only person who played a pivotal role here, as Shetterly makes clear by mentioning Dorothy, as well. After all, without Dorothy’s help, Katherine wouldn’t have gotten as far as she did.