Katherine Johnson continues to work with NASA, distinguishing herself again during the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis, when an explosion destroys the spacecraft’s electrical system making it impossible to navigate. The astronauts first try a method from a paper coauthored by Johnson to use the stars to map their way home, then a second method that only works because one of the astronauts tested it out on the same spacecraft previously, yet another sign that “luck favors the prepared.” Johnson works with the astronauts onboard Apollo 13 for the rest of her days and becomes one of NASA’s most celebrated scientists.
Katherine’s story has a triumphant ending, proving what intelligence, persistence, luck, and hard work (along with community support) can make possible. She’s an important example because she contributes not just to one world-changing space mission, but to several, proving herself again and again, in spite of occupying a doubly unique position at Langley as both a black woman and an elite research scientist working on some of the world’s hardest problems.
Mary Jackson lives through the 1960s and 70s, as the promise of the space race era gives way to collateral damage including pollution, nuclear proliferation, and natural resource depletion. In 1972, NASA cancels its supersonic transport program, which leads to massive budget cuts and reorganizations. Mary manages to surf the turmoil and continues to work with Kaz, promoting work in the sciences and traveling to visit local schools. At 58, after hitting a glass ceiling, she makes the difficult decision to take a demotion to work in Human Resources, pushing for the advancement of women at the agency.
Mary Jackson’s trajectory takes a surprising turn. Even though she’s contributed a great deal to her team and become a black female engineer at a time when it was nearly impossible to do that, she still doesn’t advance as far as a man would have been able to. By taking on a role in HR, she hopes to change the future for the women who come after her.
Mary works with Gloria Champine to fight for the advancement and equality of women at NASA. Though Gloria is white, the two combine their forces and energy to champion feminism. They travel together to NASA headquarters to train as equal opportunity specialists to make sure that new generations of women scientists don’t get trapped in the same temp pools where computers in the 1950s and 60s languished. In this capacity, they work for a few years under Robert Benjamin Lee III, Margot Lee Shetterly’s father.
Mary is aware that working across color lines will result in the lifting up of all women, white and black. Here, she takes that realization and puts it to good use. Shetterly also explains how Mary worked for her father to remind us of her own direct connection to this story—after all, by working for the rights of all black women, Mary helped Shetterly (a black woman) advance in her own career, generations later.
After Mary dies, Gloria tracks the careers of women at NASA, making sure they advance according to their qualifications and talents. When Christine Mann (now Darden) discovers that she is going to be laid off because of budget cuts, she points out to her male supervisor that women are downsized more often then men, and she gets a promotion for her insight. She writes code designed to minimize sonic boom for different airplane configurations that is still in use today. Christine pursues a PhD, and with Gloria’s help, gets promoted to a senior executive position in her field.
Gloria inherits Mary’s pursuit of equality. Christine pushes Mary’s agenda forward in other ways, stepping up and advocating for herself to make sure she gets the opportunities she deserves. Like Mary, Christine’s vocal nature and willingness to fight lead directly to a better job, as well as a future and a career in which she influences the course of American technical innovation.
Dorothy Vaughn retires in 1971 after being passed over for a promotion to section head of a division that would have included black and white men and women. She spends the rest of her life traveling with her family. Though she never speaks about the heartbreak of leaving Langley, she also never returns to the complex after leaving her job there. Meanwhile, her legacy—the women whose careers she midwifed into existence, and those who came after them, continue to live on and thrive on Langley’s campus.
It’s heartbreaking that Dorothy’s story ends in this way, but Shetterly is careful to note that it doesn’t really end here—rather, it continues via the women who come to work at Langley in the decades during and after she leaves, and who are only able to be there because of the opportunities she helped make possible.