In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, VA seeks to hire hundreds of junior physicists and mathematicians to help in the war effort by supporting engineers in performing aeronautical research as part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA). At the time, mathematicians, who are commonly called “computers,” are almost all women. Further, Jim Crow laws are still in place in the South, which means that Hampton is a segregated place. Langley hires some black female computers, but places them in a segregated office called West Area.
In the summer of 1942, Dorothy Vaughan, a math teacher, is also working in a miltary laundry room in order to earn extra money and to support the American war effort. Married with children, Dorothy comes from a middle class black family, well-respected and well-known by other black families in town. One day she sees an advertisement for jobs at the NACA. She applies, and is hired as a mathematician. She accepts the job, even though it requires her to move quite a distance and be away from her family.
At around the same time, Katherine Coleman is a math major at West Virginia. She is such an excellent mathematician that she is invited to integrate a nearby university, where she has been accepted into a master’s program in mathematics. She completes the summer session of the master’s program, but then drops out of the program to start a family.
Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan begins work at the NACA. As a black computer, she must work in the segregated West Area Computing room. White computers, run by white Head Computers Margerey Hannah and Blanche Shopsin, work out of a different office on the East Side of Langley’s campus, called East Area. The black computers, much to their consternation, are also made to sit together in the cafeteria at a table marked with a sign that reads “Colored Computers.” Nonetheless, the black computers play an important role in helping the engineers at Langley improve American fighter planes and develop ever more powerful bomb payloads.
After the war, Dorothy fears she will be let go by the NACA, but instead she is made a permanent employee in 1946. Even so, she finds it hard to move up the ranks: there are few opportunities available to women, and even fewer for black women. Yet when the Head Computer Margery Hannah gets promoted and Margarery’s second, Blanche, unexpectedly falls ill and dies, Dorothy is asked to fill the role. For a number of years she serves only as the “acting head” of the West Area computing division, but she performs so well that she becomes full head of the unit in 1951. That same year, Mary Jackson joins West Computing, working as a computer under Dorothy Vaughan.
Globally, the “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union becomes more intense. Yet as the United States dedicates itself to fighting the spread of Communist oppression around the globe, many black Americans, including many at the NACA wonder why at the same time the United States perpetuates the oppression of African-Americans on its own soil.
Yet the NACA, perhaps, offers more opportunities than much of the rest of society. An NACA engineer named Kazimierz Czarnecki invites Mary Jackson to join his research team. Impressed by Mary’s intelligence, he then pushes her to become an engineer. Slowly, but surely, the NACA begins to integrate. That doesn’t mean bias against women and blacks is absent from the organization. It is a place where the chief officer, John Becker, thinks little of accusing Mary of making a mistake in her calculations. But it is also a place where she can use her skills to prove to him that he’d actually made the mistake. Her willingness to stand up for herself inspires other black computers, and shows those in leadership positions that Mary has what it takes to succeed.
Katherine starts work at Langley in 1953, after learning about the job from a relative at a wedding. She joins the Flight Research Division, where she impresses the engineers in the group with her expertise in analytical geometry. Once again, the NACA proves to be a place where prejudice continues to exist, and yet also a place where it seemingly can be overcome. On her first day in her new office, a white man one desk over stands up and walks away when she greets him. She ignores his rudeness, knowing if she’s going to survive at Langley, she’ll have to be resilient. Two weeks later she and the white man become fast friends, after they discover they are both from West Virginia. Similarly, it is a place where Katherine’s mathematical skill can get her moved from the computing pool into a group led by the head of the Flight Research Division, Henry Pearson. But Pearson, while seemingly promoting Katherine, also fails to give her a raise. Yet the integration that has already occurred continues to make change, as Dorothy Vaughan fights to get Katherine the raise she has earned.
Katherine quickly proves herself in her new role. Her first assignment is to solve the reason behind the recent crash of a small propeller plane. Her research helps reveal how turbulence from one plane can affect the flight of another, a discovery that ultimately leads to changes in air traffic regulations. Katherine’s abilities ensure that she is accepted by her white peers, and as she gains this acceptance she starts to ignore the COLORED bathroom signs at Langley.
Meanwhile, the world rapidly changes, both technologically and socially. Technologically, electronic computers become increasingly powerful (and the NACA buys its first computer), and in 1957 the Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first satellite into space. Meanwhile, Civil Rights protests lead to lawsuits which result in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that bans segregation in all public schools in the United States. Yet despite the ruling, many states, including Virginia, fiercely resist integrating. These different events affect the black computers at Langley in all sorts of ways. For instance, Mary Jackson has to fight anti-integration efforts in her question to get continuing education and become an engineer. At the same time, Dorothy starts to realize that her role as a computer is likely to get replaced by the electronic computers.
The launch of Sputnik also kicks off a Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In particular, the United States ramps up its efforts to develop spacecraft that can send a man into space — an effort given the name Project Mercury. (The NACA is also renamed; it becomes NASA.) These efforts offer opportunity, and Katherine, thrilled at the challenge, contributes massive amounts of research to the NACA’s efforts to build a working spacecraft. However, she is also initially not allowed to attend the editorial meetings where research reports are critiqued before they are published. She persists in her effort to be included, however. Not only does she eventually get to join these meetings, but she also becomes the first woman to publish a research report for the newly formed Space Task Group. NASA also becomes increasingly integrated, even as the regions around Langley continue to fight against desegregation, which creates an odd and frustrating contradiction for NASA’s black engineers and their families.
As time passes, Mary Jackson helps her son win the local soap box derby race, making him the first African-American child ever to do so. Mary is painfully aware any daughter of hers would have been shut out of the competition because of her gender, but is also grateful that the racial barrier, at least, has been broken. For her part, faced with the rise of electronic computers, Dorothy Vaughan teaches herself the programming language FORTRAN so that she can program the computers that will replace her, thereby saving her job.
Project Mercury progresses, with a launch date in 1961. That same year, President John F. Kennedy signs an executive order mandating Affirmative Action employment policies. Even so, the Russians remain ahead of the United States in the Space Race, and are the first to launch a cosmonaut (Yuri Gagarin) into space. While the United States accomplishes the same feat with John Glenn in 1962 (and with Katherine checking the electronic computers calculations for Glenn’s flight), President John F. Kennedy announces the ambition for Americans to land the first man on the moon.
Katherine Johnson and the rest of the Space Task Group work hard on figuring out how to send a man to the moon. While some black activists protest the mission, angry that poor African-Americans have been neglected while federal money goes to space travel, Katherine, though sympathetic to these arguments, remains dedicated to her scientific mission. In 1969, Katherine and a group of hundreds of other black women watch Apollo 11 land safely on the moon, thanks in part to Katherine’s calculations and contributions. Katherine remembers all the women who helped her get to this point. She dreams of someday calculating the flight trajectory that will send humans to Mars.