I woke up at 4:30 AM with five new blog posts battling for position in my head. I drifted off to sleep bringing together five sentence fragments that I really wanted to remember, and I didn’t want to fully wake up and write them down because I needed to sleep. When the sound of rain on the roof roused me, I tried to get back to sleep, but the descending blog bits chased me, and it was clear that sleep was done. So I got up and launched my day, eager to discover which blog post was going to bust out of the dam first. This is the post that wanted to get written first.
This week, JJ and I went to see “Hidden Figures”, America’s latest blockbuster movie. This compelling, hitherto-little-known backstory of the space race, resonated strongly with millions of moviegoers in 2017, filled with powerful messages for these days.
The space race was about more than a triumphant journey for humankind, more than the payoff of the work of thousands of people and billions of dollars, more than a pinnacle achievement of two teams each determined to be first.
The bigger deal was the implication of the power and technology. Sure, that engine boosted men to the moon. But the first nation that could build and harness and accurately aim that kind of power was also saying to the world, “…and we could aim something this big and powerful, armed with massive destructive capacity, at YOU. So mind your manners.”
Thus, July 21st, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. But it would still be another twenty years before the Berlin Wall would fall.
When I read the book, I learned that the story of the black women computers of NASA Langley began a quarter century earlier. Starting in the early 1940’s, hundreds of qualified women were invited to step into technical jobs for which they’d otherwise never have been considered because the men were fighting in uniform. One’s sex and skin color were less important if you had something America desperately needed to win a war: masses of raw computing power.
The first wave of women computers arrived to calculate the designs of aircraft that would win WWII. Many stayed on, or were invited back, in the fifties and sixties, when NASA was created, to help design and plot America’s first spacecraft and flight trajectories.
Once America entered WWII, the nation mobilized like never before. The American aircraft industry grew from being the 38th-largest in the country to being the largest in the world.
In WWII, and again during the space race, people, good people, in challenging times and at great personal cost, struggled on two fronts: war with an outside enemy, and battle with changes that profoundly disturbed many people’s ideas of how their own society was structured.
Black and white, men and women, their common creed bound them together in relentless pursuit of victory. There was no magical disappearance of differences of color or religion or political beliefs. But the turbulence of the times brought opportunities to shift the way things had always been.
The NASA computers and engineers put together every human and technical resource they had. Despite turbulent times and everyday battles on the basics of everyday living, the black women at NASA Langley persevered. No matter how much of a personal struggle against racism that they experienced every day, they never gave up — either on that, or on their professional mission. They put together everything they had, and pushed through the boundaries of earth and the mysteries of mathematics as well as the politics of personnel and human relationships to Find A Way to a place that none had gone before. The effort needed brains, regardless of the bodies that carried them.
If they did, so can we. No matter what our differences. THAT for me is just one of the lessons of the past week.
I continue to reach out to people of all political stripes who are eager to talk about their hopes and fears and visions of America under the new Administration. And every single person I speak with, regardless of their beliefs, is galvanized to work HARD for America over the next four years. No one I’ve talked to thinks that November 9th, 2016 was a slam dunk that flipped a switch and lit up a sign that made America instantly great.
Even if millions of people are a long way from a common vision for America, millions of people are much more eager than I have seen in almost three decades of living in America to engage and actively shape that vision.
There will be plenty of battles and disagreements. Even outgoing President Obama acknowledges that these struggles are also very much a part of what actually DOES make America great.
Related: Obama Farewell Address Transcript.
Hang in there, America. Keep talking to each other…and keep LISTENING to each other, too.