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 military 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.
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. 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.
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.