Hidden Figures tells the story of Black women who work at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, starting in the early 1940s. These women play an integral role in the development of American aviation and space technology. They persevere in the face of discrimination against both their race and their gender. The first women are hired to work in an all-Black unit as human “computers,” performing calculations under the direction of engineers. Over the years, as Langley desegregates, the women join engineering teams and serve alongside white men. In the 1960s, they work on the Mercury and Apollo space programs, helping to put a man into orbit and then to put men on the Moon.

The book focuses on three women. Dorothy Vaughan is hired at Langley in 1943, for the all-Black West Area Computing unit. She is a determined person and a gifted organizer. She becomes a shift supervisor and eventually the head of the unit. Part of her job is to know which of her women is best suited to work on which assignments. Eventually, the West Area unit is disbanded, like the all-white East Area unit before it. This happens partly because the women computers are increasingly being integrated into the various engineering teams, and partly because electronic computers are taking over the job of human ones. 

Mary Jackson works under Dorothy starting in 1951. She has a strong personality and is willing to speak her mind when she thinks the occasion calls for it. She enjoys hands-on work and is quick to accept an offer to be part of a team that does wind tunnel research. Eventually, following her supervisor’s advice, she earns an engineering degree. For this, she requires special permission from the City of Hampton, to attend classes held on the campus of an all-white high school.

Katherine Johnson joins the West Area unit in 1953. She is personally less bothered by the laws and social rules of the time than the other women are. Katherine is being light-skinned, which has a practical advantage in the racist society. But she also has the unusual ability to mentally block out the reality of racism and treat the white male engineers as equals. The engineers quickly recognize her unusual talent and ask her to join the Flight Research team. She becomes a trusted data analyst and researcher. Before he flies into space, John Glenn specifically asks for her to review the output of the electronic computers, to confirm that the machines have done their job correctly.

As American society makes progress toward racial equality, Mary and Katherine both try to be encouraging to Black schoolchildren who show an interest in a science career, and to Black men and women newly hired at Langley. One of these is Christine Mann. She became friends with Katherine’s daughter when the two of them attended Hampton Institute, an all-Black college near Langley. By 1969, the year of the Moon landing, America is still far from overcoming the problem of racial prejudice and inequality. However, a younger generation of people like Christine is moving up the ranks in NASA, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson.