Here’s a nice pair of books, one fiction and one nonfiction, about the early history of the NACA and the beginnings of NASA. I found out about the first from a post on John Scalzi’s blog, and was delighted when my hold on it came in the same day the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast had an interview with her about it – it’s well worth listening to!
Hidden Figures had been in my hoopla favorites list since it came out, but reading The Calculating Stars with its alternate history finally pushed me over the edge to wanting to know more about what really happened. (Also, I had a blank square on my #SummerSoLit bingo sheet for nonfiction about people of color, even though I read this past the deadline.)
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Tor, 2018.
1952 – Elma, a former WASP, and her engineer husband Nathaniel are in their cottage in the Poconos when a meteor hits just off the coast near D.C., taking out the capital and most of the eastern seaboard. Elma is barely able to fly a falling-apart plane to the nearest Air Force base, where they shelter with African-American Major Lindholm and his wife. This is breaking down boundaries for both of them, as Lindholms aren’t used to socializing with Jews any more than Elma and Nathaniel are used to being around African-Americans. Though everyone soon moves, this early friendship sets up a friendship that lasts through the book, along with the difficulty Elma has with the man in charge of the base, jerky but photogenic Stetson Parker, who has been a thorn in her side since her WASP days.
But Elma is also a mathematician, and her calculations show that Earth is in serious trouble. Though it might take a few years to be noticeable, it’s headed on a path towards boiling oceans. She knows the men in charge are more likely to listen to Nathaniel, but she’s got to find a way to deal with her crippling anxiety about public speaking in order to convince them to start working towards getting humans off the earth right away, and that women will have to go in space, too, if humanity is to survive. This is highly researched alternate history, filled with the diversity of gender and ethnicity that’s always been there, but usually gets left out. I myself leaving out lots of awesomeness in the interests of space – but the sequel, The Fated Sky is out now, and is on my post-Cybils reading list.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Read by Robin Miles. Harper Audio, 2016.
Since there was a movie and all, you’ve probably already heard of Hidden Figures. But of course the movie has to cut things down considerably, leaving out characters, starting the story later in time and ending it sooner. Basically, the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, started recruiting African-Americans during World War II, and made their positions permanent as America decided that it needed to stay dominant in air even past the end of the war. Many African-Americans worked for the “double V” – victory both in the war and rights at home. The women often had advanced degrees in mathematics, but of course, as segregation was the official law and women being less intelligent and capable of hard work than men the unofficial law, their path was not easy. They had to fight for engineering and manager positions, as well as for integrated bathrooms and cafeteria seating. The bit of trivia that I was most pleased about was learning that Mary Jackson, besides her work at NACA and NASA, and having only sons, was a dedicated Girl Scout leader, committed to mentoring her girls and encouraging them to dream big. As schools became integrated, she also succeeded in integrating the Girl Scout councils.
I did have trouble keeping everyone’s names and stories straight, which might have been easier for me personally in print. Narrator Robin Miles is African-American, and known for her ability to reproduce many, many accents. Here, though, everything was mostly read in a standard (northern) American accent. I felt rather torn about this – on the one hand, one of the reasons I love audiobooks is their ability to bring the voices of the characters to life. In a book set mostly in Virginia, I just couldn’t buy that everyone, Black or white, would be speaking like that. On the other hand, Americans are famously prejudiced against southern accents, so this must have been an editorial decision to keep the book from sounding uneducated. Regardless, the book is well worth reading. There is enough of history, math and engineering and character exploration to keep fans of any and all of these interested.