One of the blockbuster hits of early 2017 is a film about a group of unlikely heroines who helped propel the American space program into great success. Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were three of the human computers behind John Glenn’s successful orbit, but they were also pioneers who broke barriers for women and African-Americans in science and engineering. We’ve come a long way since these remarkable scientists were toiling in their segregated labs, but we’ve still got ground to cover to motivate freedom and opportunity for all. Let these ten books inspire you to overcome obstacles and achieve your full potential.
Hidden Figures: the American dream and the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race by Margot Lee Shetterly: In the years leading up to the first space launches, NASA needed the best and the brightest to calculate the mathematics that would take our astronauts to the moon. Turns out, some of those best and brightest minds were working as schoolteachers in the Jim Crow-era South. Seen as unlikely heroes, black and female, these brilliant women nevertheless persisted.The movie is great, and the book brings even more of the story to life.
We Could Not Fail: the First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul and Steven Moss: The Space Age began just as the struggle for civil rights forced Americans to confront the long and bitter legacy of slavery, discrimination, and violence against African Americans. We Could Not Fail tells the inspiring, largely unknown story of how shooting for the stars helped to overcome segregation on earth. Richard Paul and Steven Moss profile ten pioneer African American space workers whose stories illustrate the role NASA and the space program played in promoting civil rights.
Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt: In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they recruited an elite group of young women — known as human computers — who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American ballistic missiles. But they were never interested in developing weapons, their hearts lay in the dream of space exploration. So when the JPL became part of a new agency called NASA, the women worked on the first probes to the moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond. Later, as digital computers largely replaced human ones, JPL was unique in training and retaining its brilliant pool of women. They became the first computer programmers and engineers, and through their efforts, we launched the ships that showed us the contours of our solar system. Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women who broke the boundaries of both gender and science.
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland with Charisse Jones: As the only African American soloist dancing with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has made history. But when she first placed her hands on the barre at an after-school community center, no one expected the undersized, anxious thirteen-year-old to become a groundbreaking ballerina.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice: The personal story of the former Secretary of State traces her childhood in segregated Alabama, describes the influence of people who shaped her life, and pays tribute to her parents’ characters and sacrifices.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel: Did you know that a group of very smart women at the Harvard Observatory made great contributions to our modern understanding of astronomy? In a male-dominated field, most of these women didn’t get the recognition they deserved as they were computing and recording their observations of the stars beginning in the mid-19th century. Their work with spectrophotography led to the discovery of thousands of stars as well as a classification system for different types of stars and an understanding of their composition. Sobel brings them the recognition they deserve.
Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin: A comprehensive portrait of the First Lady describes her working-class upbringing on Chicago’s South Side, her education at Princeton and Harvard during the racially charged 1980s, and her marriage to the future forty-fourth president.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. She tells about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and the disappointments, triumphs and exhilarating discoveries of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
The Girls of Atomic City: The untold story of the women who helped win World War II by Denise Kiernan: The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee had 75,000 residents during World War II and was using more electricity than New York, but it didn’t appear on any maps and was shrouded in secrecy. Thousands of young women had been recruited to this top-secret project; many of them didn’t know what the project was either, until the end of the war. Then the work of Oak Ridge was revealed and the world changed forever.
Almost Astronauts: Thirteen women who dared to dream by Tanya Lee Stone: When America created NASA in 1958, there was an unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. Although the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules.