Last week-end I finished reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, a book about the African American women who helped launch America’s first astronauts into space. If you’ve seen my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve been quite engrossed in this book, which is about something that I thought I had next to zero interest in.
Don’t get me wrong — I have a reasonable interest in maths, science and historical events; and the age-old question of what is really out there? has some portion of my curiosity, but space exploration has never rated very highly on the list of things I’m interested in enough to actively and independently research. (What would be on this list? Sounds like it could be a whole other post on its own, but probably stuff that affects my day-to-day, or stuff about why things are how they are. But in truth, I don’t think I’ve done much non-fiction reading, web browsing or other “research” since finishing formal education.)
I guess space exploration, to me, was always something a bit pie in the sky compared to immediate problems like climate change and poverty in developing countries. Shetterly even mentions in the later chapters of her book that the space race left some African Americans of the time quite disgruntled, wondering why their country was so concerned about getting into space (and spending millions of dollars on it) when there were Earthly troubles to be addressed, like why they were still being treated as second-class citizens.
So why did I read this book?
As I’ve garnered from comments on previous posts, and from talking to people outside of the blogosphere, a lot of people have heard of this book or the eponymous movie before (interestingly, most people had heard of one medium and not realised the other existed at all). I, myself, would not have known that either the book or movie existed had my partner not mentioned they really liked the movie. (But, me being me, I had to read the book first. I suppose I’ll watch the movie at some stage.)
Aside from the seriousness with which I take avid book recommendations, I think this book caught my interest as something of an underdog story. Not only is it about women, but about African American women — two marginalised and under-represented groups. The women of Hidden Figures had to overcome societal expectations, segregation, discrimination, and their own self-doubts and questioning about what they should do (a product, at least in part, of the first three factors).
Being of a subject matter that I didn’t know much about also helped pique my interest. I have in me that insatiable need to know things — useful and not-so-useful facts. This appetite has been helped along by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have brought to light how little the general public (me included) know about racial discrimination in our own countries. It got me wondering what else I don’t know, and what else I should know.
In the epilogue of Hidden Figures, Shetterly mentions that she had to cut out an entire chapter from the final version of the book. Regrettably this also meant leaving out the story of someone she had wanted to include. The subtext, of course, is that there is so much more to tell, and so much more to learn.
Another thing I learnt from reading Hidden Figures was that there are a lot more people involved in launching a rocket than I ever imagined. Mainstream media images generally only depict the control room, and the astronauts. Little did I know about (or even consider) the many engineers and mathematicians that map out and account for every potential scenario and trajectory to near-failsafe accuracy; the other control centres around the world that help track the location and performance status of spacecraft orbiting Earth; or even the ship crew on standby in a very precise location to collect astronauts after they return from space, and land in the ocean.
However, as wondrous as this learning journey has been, and as much as I would like to know more, I think I will go back to reading fiction novels now, for a while at least. I’ll try to include more non-fiction works in my reading list though, as I’m sure there’s a lot more for me to learn about the great wide world and beyond.