I was born in 1971, by which time astronaut John Glenn had orbited the Earth and Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon. My parents were witness to these monumental achievements, but sadly they knew nothing of a team of phenomenal black women who quietly played a pivotal part in making these significant moments possible. My family didn’t know their amazing story or how it would relate to me when I started dreaming about becoming an astronaut. As an African American woman, a physicist and a current employee of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: the Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, both excited and moved me.

I was eager to delve into the untold true story of the African American female mathematicians who came to work at NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at Langley Field campus in Hampton, Virginia, following the labour shortages of the Second World War. Part of the segregated West Area Computers division, these human “coloured computers”, who had previously worked as underpaid maths teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at Langley after the war ended. They became a crucial part of America’s race into space during the Cold War, as they calculated the flight paths that would send Armstrong to the Moon.

Before I had even known of the book, in July 2016 I was given the opportunity to watch the trailer for the upcoming film Hidden Figures, based on Shetterly’s book. I recall having goose bumps down my arms and back while watching the excerpts, alongside cast members Janelle Monáe and Aldis Hodge, together with other NASA employees, including astronaut Victor Glover. I felt an overwhelming connection to the women I watched on-screen and I knew it was my duty to read the book and discover more about their story that was omitted from the history of space that I had been told.

I was ready to learn about the sacrifices made by these women who played a key role in integrating NASA and providing a pathway for me to follow. The book mainly outlines the contributions of four women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives, their careers and their contributions to NASA. There are two passages in particular that really resonated with me, and I have a feeling that many other African Americans in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will agree. The first was the bit that mentioned the “West Computers” having to “prove themselves equal or better, having internalized the Negro theorem of needing to be twice as good to get half as far”. Also, the fact that “not everyone could take the long hours and high stakes of working at Langley, but most of the women in West Area Computers felt that if they didn’t stand up to the pressure, they’d forfeit their opportunity and maybe opportunity for the women who would come after them” really drew me into parts of the story. I personally identified the most with Johnson who, like me, has three children. As the first black graduate from the University of Alabama with a concentration in physics, I also connected with Jackson who was NASA’s first black female engineer.

Although I was fascinated with the story being told, I unfortunately found the book somewhat difficult to read. The depth with which Shetterly chronicles the women’s lives clearly shows her deep personal connection to the story, as well as her own history with NASA – her father was a research scientist at Langley. But at the same time, the book was written in a more distant way than I was expecting – the book often spans further out to address the wider historical context of the time, instead of remaining true to the women’s stories. The prologue describes the author’s personal experience of the subject and provides a short account of her view of the story and her dedication to unveiling the history – it was beautifully written by Shetterly and was one of my favourite parts of the book.

Since the release of the film I have watched it eight times, and for three of those I had the honour of viewing it with Johnson’s granddaughter, Katherine Michelle Sanders. Each time she was present, Sanders provided little quips on what was true or false and even expanded on a part of the history that the film omitted. This film moved me to tears each time I watched it and I still sometimes find myself angry that women and minorities are currently dealing with the same issue of bias that Johnson and her colleagues had to face in their day. In my current role as president of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), so many people have approached me and felt compelled to share stories of similar segregation, being left out of important meetings or generally treated differently due to their gender or race.

Hidden Figures is an inspiring story that outlines the significant and remarkable impact these intelligent and brave African American women had on some of NASA’s greatest hits. The film and book should be seen and read by all young African American girls, as it not only proves to them that they can be black, female and top-notch mathematicians and engineers, but also shows them that the pathway has already been laid for them and that their participation in science will go some way to lessening the large disparity that exists when it comes to race and gender in science. For me, the book and film provided insight into the women who preceded me at NASA and provided context to those “giants” on whose shoulders I stand. I can only imagine the dreams I might have dreamed if I had known this story before now.