The Portrayal of Early Manned Spaceflight in Hidden Figures: A Critique
Primary source material for assessing the historicity of Margot Shetterly's book Hidden Figures
Primary source material is the historian’s gold. The attached document, “The Portrayal of Early Manned Spaceflight in Hidden Figures: A Critique,” supplements the existing primary source material for the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era.
Until 2015, it could be argued that historians had everything they needed. NASA’s history office had hundreds, probably thousands, of transcripts of interviews with all the key players and many minor ones. Many of the most famous figures had written autobiographies. Many scholarly historical accounts running to hundreds of pages had been published. The Johnson Space Center and the National Archives had stored vast quantities of the documentation that was generated internally during the manned missions of the 1960s. It was hard to imagine how a significant part of the story could remain unknown.
Then, on November 24th, 2015, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to a 97-year-old woman named Katherine Johnson, saying of her that “from sending the first American into space to the first moon landing, she played a critical role in many of NASA’s most important milestones.” Charles Bolden, the NASA Administrator at that time, said that “she’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country” and that “Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space.” Dr. Dava Newman, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, said that “she literally wrote the textbook on rocket science… At NASA, we are proud to stand on Katherine Johnson’s shoulders.” The award ceremony was soon followed by the best-selling book Hidden Figures and then by the film version, a critical and box-office hit. In both the book and the film, Katherine Johnson was the leading character.
Her story had seemingly come out of nowhere. None of the NASA interviews of the veterans of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo had mentioned her, nor had any of the autobiographies or histories written about the manned spaceflight program. How could such an important figure have been so completely ignored? The natural next step for NASA would have been to re-interview the surviving veterans who had been associated with the accomplishments attributed to Katherine Johnson, seeking to explain how this gaping hole in the story had come about. That didn’t happen.
It is not clear that NASA even wanted to explain it. Senior NASA officials have been on record celebrating Katherine Johnson’s achievements many times over the years since she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. NASA built a 40,000-square-foot building at Langley Research Center and named it the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Center. It’s such a good story that many people at NASA have had incentives not to investigate the historicity of Hidden Figures.
To my knowledge, the document posted here is the only attempt by experienced aerospace engineers to unravel fact from fiction in Hidden Figures. The heart of the document consists of commentaries written by Harold (Hal) Beck and Kenneth Young, members of the Mission Planning and Analysis Division of the Manned Spacecraft Center from Mercury through Apollo (and beyond). Their expertise specifically involves spacecraft trajectories and rendezvous, issues that are central to the claims made in Hidden Figures. Also, before joining the manned spaceflight program, Hal Beck worked at a desk next to Katherine Johnson’s for nearly two years.
“The Portrayal of Early Manned Spaceflight in Hidden Figures: A Critique” consists of seventy-one pages of mostly arcane material. It is not an easy read. Our purpose in disseminating it is to make evidence available to future historians and journalists who will need to decide what to make of the story told in Hidden Figures. We cannot count on that happening unless the document is so widely available that future writers cannot help running across it during their research. We encourage everyone with a special interest in manned spaceflight to download it. The document is not copyrighted. You are welcome to distribute it and quote it at whatever length you wish as long as the quotations are accurate and in context.
We have invited Margot Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures, to respond and will post verbatim anything she writes on this website. If others have relevant empirical material in the form of either personal experience or documentation, we will post that as well. Such additional material can be sent to me at email@example.com.
Co-author, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989)