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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures Summary


Here you will find a Hidden Figures summary (Margot Lee Shetterly's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Hidden Figures Summary Overview

The narrative centers on African American women diligently serving at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, beginning in the early 1940s. Their essential participation in the progression of American aerospace and aviation technology, despite racially and sexually biased hurdles, is noteworthy. Initially, the women are employed in an exclusively Black unit as human "calculators," executing calculations under engineer's guidance. As the lab integrates over the years, these women become part of engineering teams working alongside white men. By the 1960s, their work extends to the Mercury and Apollo space missions, contributing significantly to putting a man in orbit and eventually on the moon. The narrative's focus narrows down to three women. Dorothy Vaughan, who joined Langley in 1943, is a skilled organizer and a relentless individual. Her leadership skills lead her to become a shift supervisor, later ascending as the head of the unit. Her responsibility includes allocating the best-suited assignments to the women under her. The unit eventually disbands due to the women's increased integration into various engineering teams and the onset of electronic computers. Mary Jackson, who begins work under Dorothy in 1951, has a strong character and does not shy away from voicing her opinions. Accepting an offer to join a wind tunnel research team, she later earns an engineering degree with special permission, as the classes were held in an all-white high school. Katherine Johnson becomes part of the unit in 1953. She is less perturbed by the era's racial and social norms than her colleagues. Being light-skinned gives her a practical advantage, yet her ability to overlook racism and treat her white male counterparts as equals stands out. Her unique talent lands her a place on the Flight Research team and she becomes a trusted data analyst. Noteworthy is John Glenn's specific request for her to verify the electronic computer's output before his space journey. As the nation gradually moves towards racial equality, Mary and Katherine inspire young black students interested in science and mentor new African American recruits at Langley. Among them is Christine Mann, who studied with Katherine’s daughter at an all-Black college. By the time of the moon landing in 1969, despite lingering racial bias, a new generation of individuals like Christine continues to rise within NASA, inspired by the trailblazing trio.

chapter 1

In the late 1930s, with a potential war looming in Europe, President Roosevelt urges the American aircraft industry to significantly boost their production. By 1940, America outpaces Germany and Japan in aircraft output, with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) overseeing and assisting the process. NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, based in Hampton, Virginia, is actively expanding to meet the increasing demands for airworthy designs and modifications. As new facilities constantly emerge, Melvin Butler, in charge of personnel, has to continually recruit additional staff. Key among his hires are "computers", human mathematicians whose task is to decipher numerical data from wind tunnel tests. Over recent years, this role has predominantly been filled by women due to their aptitude for the work and their lower pay scale, which aids Langley in budgeting. By 1943, Butler grapples with staffing enough female calculators. A couple of years prior, A. Philip Randolph's threat of a railroad porters’ union strike led to Roosevelt ordering two executive mandates to desegregate the defense industry. As a result, Butler now sees a surge in applications from Black women wanting to serve as mathematicians. Whatever Butler's personal views on race might be, his main concern lies in competence and manpower. Given the societal norms then, an integrated workspace is out of the question. Thus, Butler discreetly creates a segregated area in a freshly constructed building for Black female employees.

chapter 2

In 1943, amidst World War II, Dorothy Vaughan, a Black woman and mother of four, labored in the laundry of Camp Pickett, Virginia. Situated 30 miles from her home in Farmville, the camp was a stepping stone for Black and white soldiers heading for Europe. Although the job was tough and the wage of 40 cents per hour was meager, it was more than her earnings as a high school math teacher. Dorothy was an academic prodigy born in 1910. She fast-tracked her education, graduating as valedictorian of her high school before studying mathematics in college. Despite a professor's suggestion to pursue graduate studies, the onset of the Great Depression meant she had to work as a math teacher to support her family. By 1943, she had her own family and was teaching in Farmville’s Negro high school. In a bid to fund her children's future college endeavors, she sought extra work at Camp Pickett. Yet, a newspaper piece about Black women aspiring to become engineers at Hampton Institute, close to Langley, sparked something within her. Inspired, she noticed a job advertisement at Langley for women skilled in math. Eager to seize the opportunity, she promptly applied.

chapter 3

In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan returns to her teaching role in Farmville. Besides conducting the choir, she also spends extra hours aiding students who are finding it hard to catch up. Unexpectedly, a job offer from Langley comes her way, which she accepts despite the distance from her family. Her husband, Howard, is also frequently absent due to his work as a bellman at high-end hotels, which requires him to follow seasonal jobs in different states. Their extended family steps in to take care of the kids when both parents are away. In the prior year, Howard's assignment at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia had led to a friendship with Joshua Coleman's family. Joshua, who worked alongside Howard, had a daughter, Katherine, who was ten years younger than Dorothy. Katherine, like Dorothy, was academically gifted, particularly in mathematics, and had similarly forgone a postgraduate degree to settle into family life. Katherine would later join Dorothy at Langley.

chapter 4

Hampton Roads, inclusive of the town Hampton and the city Newport News, witnessed change as it evolved from forests and farmland into a prominent war industry hub during Dorothy's tenure. Government-funded housing projects, like Newsome Park in Newport News, met the housing needs of the burgeoning civilian population, particularly African-Americans. Dorothy found accommodation with an elderly African-American couple who provided boarding in their spacious house. Increased housing density led to strain between African-Americans and whites over usage of shared public amenities and transport. While major violent clashes were rare in Hampton Roads, African-Americans nationwide were frustrated. Despite promises of equality post-Civil War and by Woodrow Wilson during World War I, they still faced discrimination. Their bitter experience resonated with W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness”. Expected to fight against foreign racism while tolerating domestic discrimination, African-Americans questioned the purpose of their struggle. They answered their nation's call post-Pearl Harbor, hoping that their service would be duly acknowledged. An appeal in the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black-oriented newspaper, prompted African-Americans to strive for two victories - against foreign adversaries and domestic racial prejudice.

chapter 5

Melvin Butler creates a workspace for African American women within Langley's West Area. These women, some of whom were highlighted in a newspaper article that motivated Dorothy, are educated at the Hampton Institute. This Institute constantly provides Langley with human computers. Malcolm MacLean, the Institute's leader, is resolute in ensuring his African American graduates contribute to the war efforts, even if his racially integrated social gatherings upset some white individuals. Langley's director, Henry Reid, takes a more careful approach, while Margery Hannah, the white supervisor of West Computing, is openly forward-thinking. She, like MacLean, considers African American men and women as equals and occasionally socializes with them. The white female computers are situated in an East Area building. Although everyone shares the same cafeteria, African American women are assigned a segregated table labeled: COLORED COMPUTERS. The white engineers, particularly those from the north and west, hold practical views about collaborating with the African American computers. Regardless of their opinions about social integration, they value good work and maintain respectful relationships with the women. The African American computers generally find the workplace agreeable. Yet, a woman named Miriam Mann persistently removes the offensive cafeteria sign, and finally succeeds when no more replacement signs appear. This signifies a small victory.

chapter 6

In 1944, the Tuskegee airmen, African American pilots, become a source of pride for the black community. Their aircraft, the P-51 Mustang, noted for its dependability and aerial combat performance, was developed at Langley. However, Langley staff are continually urged to remain silent about their work outside the premises. The townsfolk's perception of Langley engineers as "weirdos" is acceptable, as long as they remain oblivious to the specifics of their work. Langley undertakes both actual flight tests with aircraft prototypes and wind tunnel tests with models. The Sixteen-Foot High Speed Tunnel is a notable landmark in the West Area. Dorothy and her fellow computers learn about engineering physics and aerodynamics to better understand the computations they're handling. All these tests, alongside the theoretical work by the "no-air" engineers, are geared towards creating new or improving existing fighter, cargo, and bomber planes. When B-29s carry out bombings in Japan, Langley's director, Henry Reid, credits every single worker at the lab, from engineers to janitors, for playing a role in the mission. Dorothy feels she's contributing to the war efforts.

chapter 7

Newsome Park, a residential area for war workers, offers a comfortable lifestyle with convenient access to a variety of shops and home-delivered necessities. In 1944's summer, Dorothy decides to relocate her children to an apartment near a school in the area to reduce the burden of infrequent, brief visits due to long drives. This relocation further distances her from Howard, both emotionally and physically. By August 1945, World War II concludes, and jubilant Americans flood the streets. However, the celebration is brief. The shift towards peacetime production and the return of soldiers could lead to job losses, particularly for women. There's a fear that the progress made by Black workers may reverse. Moreover, there's a potential threat of demolishing residential developments like Newsome Park. Despite these uncertainties, Dorothy takes a chance with the apartment lease, determined to make Newport News her permanent residence. Her bond with Miriam Mann strengthens, and their families spend considerable time together. Howard occasionally joins them, subject to his work and travel commitments.

chapter 8

Born and bred in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Coleman grew up in an environment where racial tensions were slightly less severe than in Virginia. She often picked up work at Greenbrier, a resort where her father was also employed, and it is here that he would later meet Dorothy's spouse. Katherine's work ethic and intelligence left a positive impression on both the guests and management at the resort. Blessed with her father's knack for mathematics, Katherine's academic prowess allowed her to advance from second to fifth grade. By the tender age of fifteen, she was already studying at West Virginia State College. There, a gifted yet tough professor, William Schieffelin Claytor, designed advanced classes for her and encouraged her to pursue graduate studies. Nonetheless, Katherine opted for a teaching position in Marion, Virginia after graduating in 1937. She encountered Jimmy Goble, another teacher, and they secretly married since hiring married women was not a common practice in schools. Katherine left her teaching job two years later for a higher-paying position in Morgantown, West Virginia. The subsequent spring, she was invited to be among the first Black students to join West Virginia University's graduate school in a move to desegregate the institution. Katherine participated in the summer session but withdrew from the program upon becoming pregnant. In 1944, she resumed her teaching duties in Marion when her husband fell ill, taking over his role at the request of his school principal.

chapter 9

From 1945, Dorothy Vaughan and her husband, Howard, enjoy more family time, raising six children by 1947. They are part of a closely bonded community of families, frequenting an all-Black resort on the James River. The conclusion of the war has minor economic impact on Hampton Roads, which has become a base for numerous military installations and related industries. Langley, instead of war-related tasks, shifts focus to new challenges like breaking the sound barrier. Dorothy secures a permanent position in 1946, becoming one of three shift supervisors at West Computing, reporting to Margery Hannah, the white section head. Meanwhile, Langley undergoes changes with women from East Computing leaving for different jobs and some joining Langley’s specialized engineering sections. In 1947, East Computing is dissolved and all its tasks are transferred to West Computing. Despite the Black West Area women having limited job opportunities, two make significant advancements. One shift supervisor, renowned for her mathematical acumen, joins the Stability Analysis group, known for their forward-thinking approach. The other notable advancement is when Blanche Sponsler, Margery Hannah's Black assistant, becomes section head. Unfortunately, Blanche suffers a mental breakdown in early 1949, leading to her hospitalization. Dorothy steps in as acting head of West Area Computers. Tragically, Blanche passes away later that year for unstated reasons. Two years post Blanche’s breakdown, Dorothy’s appointment is finalized, showcasing her administrative skills, including aptly assigning tasks to her team based on requests from the engineering section.

chapter 10

Mary Jackson, a Hampton native, majored in maths and physical science at Hampton Institute. Upon her 1942 graduation, she taught high school in Maryland for a year, then moved back home to care for her sick father. Due to policies, she couldn't teach where her sisters were already working. Instead, she found a job at Hampton USO, a social hub for U.S. military personnel and their families during wartime. There, she met Levi Jackson, who she married in 1944. Following the closure of the USO after the war, she looked after their young son, Levi, Jr. and led a Girl Scout troop in her spare time. By 1951, the Black community was aware of Langley's job openings for skilled women. Eager to return to work, Mary applied for an army clerical job and a position at Langley. The tension of the Cold War was palpable, with Russian jets targeting American bombers over Korea and fears of espionage toward the Soviet Union. The FBI had been probing several individuals at Langley for possible spying activities. Matilda West, a remote relative of Dorothy's who was employed at Langley and connected to the politically controversial Stability Research group, was dismissed. Concurrently, President Truman was advocating for desegregation in the military and fighting to abolish bias in the civil service. Amidst this backdrop, Mary left her three-month army clerk typist post to join West Computing.

chapter 11

With East Computing dissolved, the outdated eastern part of the campus occasionally needs assistance from the West Area. This leads Dorothy to send Mary over once. On arrival, Mary embarrassingly asks white co-workers for the bathroom location, only to be met with amusement as they don't know where hers is. The incident maddens Mary, but she finds comfort in venting to assistant section head, Kazimierz Czarnecki. Luckily, her honesty yields an invitation to his team. Langley's current endeavors are exciting, revolving around wind-tunnel design and aircraft body shapes. These developments suit Mary's physics background perfectly. Impressively, when she disputes with a division chief, a thorough examination of the data and calculations vindicates her. While Langley houses women proficient in swift mental calculations and possessing a deep comprehension of advanced mathematics, Mary showcases another sought-after engineering trait: the bravery to persist when she knows she's right.

chapter 12

In 1952, Jimmy Goble and his wife Katherine attend a family wedding where they are encouraged by Eric, Jimmy's brother-in-law, to move from Marion to Newport News. Eric, who has many connections, promises to arrange jobs for both of them; for Jimmy in the shipyard, and Katherine as a mathematician at Langley, where Eric already knows some of the women, including the head of the section. Enticed by the potential for higher wages than their current teaching jobs, Katherine and Jimmy, along with their three children, decide to move to Newsome Park. Eric secures a job for Jimmy as a shipyard painter, while Katherine's application to Langley is accepted. In 1953, Katherine starts work at Langley and is pleasantly surprised that her new supervisor is Dorothy, a former neighbor from White Sulphur Springs. Dorothy soon assigns Katherine to a temporary role in the Flight Research Division. On her first day, she finds an unoccupied desk, seats herself and smiles at her adjacent white male colleague. However, he responds by standing up and walking away, leaving Katherine unsure if it was because of her race or gender, or if he was already planning to leave. Opting not to dwell on the incident, she soon learns that they share something in common; they're both from West Virginia. This realization sparks a quick friendship between them.

chapter 13

Katherine's abilities are quickly noticed at the Flight Research center, leading to her employment being confirmed after a six-month trial period. One of her significant contributions involves deciphering flight data from a small airplane that mysteriously crashed. Katherine identifies that turbulence trails from large jets can be dangerously disruptive for smaller aircrafts even thirty minutes later. This revelation prompts a revision of air traffic rules. When Katherine and Jimmy upgrade their living situation from Newsome Park to a nicer community, Jimmy is sadly diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor and passes away shortly before Christmas in 1956. Despite her grief, Katherine resolves to pursue her career, appreciative of Jimmy’s initial support. She manages to overlook the racial prejudice of white people, an ability not all of her African American colleagues possess. Her fair skin often confuses white individuals about her race, aiding her in this respect. In addition, her tendency to be practical, like her father, helps her navigate the tense environment. Rather than experiencing segregation in the cafeteria, she opts for a healthier option of packed lunch at her desk. Moreover, her ability to earn respect echoes that of her father’s. She takes pleasure in engaging with intelligent white colleagues and by treating them as equals, she fosters a reciprocal relationship.

chapter 14

In the mid-50s, electronic computers begin to outpace human calculators. These machines, despite being bulky and loud, can work continuously without rest. Dorothy guides her team to pursue courses that could lead to positions overseeing these computers in an increasingly diverse workplace. Noticing Mary's potential, Kaz Czarnecki advises her to earn her engineering qualification. This requires her attending classes at Hampton High School, a part of the University of Virginia’s extension program. Despite the 1954 Supreme Court verdict of Brown v. Board of Education which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Virginia schools like Hampton still barred Black students. However, Mary suppresses her indignation and obtains “special permission” from the City of Hampton to attend the courses, which she begins in 1956. Mary and her friend Levi Jackson are acquainted with Thomas Byrdsong, one of only three Black engineers at Langley. While many of their white colleagues act polite, they also face blatant animosity, particularly from technicians and mechanics. One mechanic intentionally disrupted Thomas’s inaugural wind-tunnel test, but was swiftly reprimanded by Thomas’s white supervisor.

chapter 15

In the late 1957, school integration becomes headline news as nine African-American students face opposition while trying to enroll in a previously all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The standoff between state and federal authorities concludes only after President Eisenhower deploys military forces to safeguard the students. Shortly after, Russia propels the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. The U.S. trails behind, with the media attributing this lag to an education system more focused on depriving black children of quality education than molding students of all races into future scientists and engineers. Meanwhile, Christine Mann, who is unrelated to Miriam Mann, begins her final year at Asheville's all-African-American Allen School For Girls, having just celebrated her fifteenth birthday. Early on, she displayed a knack for mechanics, maintaining her bike and dissecting her talking dolls out of curiosity. Come spring, she is named class valedictorian. She aspires to attend a historically black university, but not one that her older siblings attended. Consequently, in August 1958, she commences her education at Hampton Institute, where she eventually meets Katherine's daughter, Joylette Goble.

chapter 16

Langley's research has successfully addressed the challenges of high-speed atmospheric flight, prompting Katherine and her team to question what's next. The launch of Sputnik indicates a new focus on space flight, stirring the U.S. government to outdo Russia's space program. To this end, the quiet engineer-run NACA is revamped into NASA, an expanding entity aiming to captivate public attention with its achievements. Consequently, Langley Aeronautical Laboratory gets a new name, Langley Research Center. Katherine is eager to tackle the upcoming ventures. Conversely, Dorothy experiences mixed feelings about the changes. Both she and several other women from the West Area have landed in specialized departments, leading to the downsizing of Dorothy’s team. Moreover, the all-Black work unit is increasingly becoming an international disgrace for the U.S. due to growing racial tensions. As a result, West Computing is closed down in 1958, mirroring the fate of East Computing. Dorothy remains at Langley but is no longer a supervisor, instead becoming “one of the girls.”

chapter 17

Katherine's workplace, the Flight Research Division, along with the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD), spearheads the cultivation of Langley's skills in space engineering. They create and share lectures on subjects like rocket propulsion, orbital physics, and the challenges of reentering the atmosphere, and also write reports. These must pass an editorial review process to spot any potential errors. Katherine aims to participate in these reviews, much like her male peers, but is rebuffed with the statement that “Girls don’t go to the meetings.” This applies to both Black and white women. Interestingly, a white woman, Dorothy Lee, an engineer in PARD, is beginning to receive credit for her contributions to these reports. Resilient, Katherine continues to push for inclusion until she finally gains access to the editorial meetings in the Guidance and Control Branch of the Flight Research Division in 1958.

chapter 18

NASA creates the Space Task Group, principally manned by Flight Research and PARD staff, tasked with Project Mercury, aiming for a human-crewed Earth orbit. Katherine, now a widow with a grown-up daughter, has retreated from her earlier social life. Her life takes a turn when she encounters Jim Johnson at church, a former navy and army serviceman now employed as a mailman. They soon start dating. Due to staff shortages at Flight Research, Katherine's workload increases. By 1959, she is primarily responsible for compiling a report on the appropriate launch direction for manned rockets. It's crucial that reentry drops the space capsule, carrying the astronaut, into a predetermined spot in the ocean, ready for recovery by waiting ships. Her calculations must account for Earth's gravitational pull, rotational speed, slightly irregular shape, among other considerations. As the report concludes, the division chief concurs that Katherine should be credited as a co-author. Around this time, Katherine and Jim Johnson tie the knot, and thus her name on the report reads Katherine G. Johnson.

chapter 19

In the summer of 1960, Mary collaborates with her son, Levi Jr., to participate in the Newport News soap box derby. Given her engineering expertise, she can offer more assistance than most fathers. Black boys usually don't know about or participate in the derby, but for Mary, this is an opportunity for Levi to compete against white boys on a fair basis, regardless of the outcome. Despite girls not being allowed to participate, Mary hopes for equal opportunities for them, as well. Along with a white female colleague, she addresses Black junior high school girls about pursuing engineering. She also advocates for an integrated Girl Scout council in her role as a troop leader. Come race day, Levi emerges as the champion, saving his best performance for the final round. When asked about his future aspirations, he expresses his desire to follow in his mother's footsteps and become an engineer.

chapter 20

The Civil Rights Movement experiences significant events in 1960. Inspired by a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, similar protests occur in Hampton. Christine Mann, an Institute junior, engages in these protests, as well as voter registration drives, despite her heavy academic obligations. In Virginia, the state and county governments, who favor segregation, oppose these acts of defiance. Dorothy’s former county school decides to cut their funding instead of integrating schools. On a different path, Langley initiates the Analysis and Computation Division, where Dorothy becomes involved in writing programs for IBM computers. She collaborates with white women and more frequently with men. In 1961, Alan Shepard becomes the first American to travel to space during a brief suborbital flight, prompting President Kennedy to set a goal of landing on the Moon by the decade's end. Langley's involvement is assured, but Houston is designated as the hub for this ambitious project. While some Langley women are ready to move, others, including Katherine, have no such plans.

chapter 21

Public interest and media scrutiny towards NASA and Project Mercury is escalating, as Russia successfully conducts a seventeen-orbit mission. Amidst mounting pressure, in July 1962, the project is prepared to send its first astronaut, John Glenn, into Earth's orbit. A typical pilot, Glenn harbors reservations about completely automated flight and wants a human to verify calculations. He requests Katherine, a mathematician he occasionally encounters at Langley, to validate the figures from the IBM machines. After a day and a half, Katherine certifies the output and the launch moves forward. While Glenn is orbiting Earth, a potential heat shield issue is signaled. He is forced to manually adjust during re-entry as the capsule begins to sway. However, he manages to touch down safely. A few weeks later, a parade through Hampton and Newport News draws a crowd of thirty thousand. Glenn is celebrated as the hero, but Katherine's critical role in his mission is recognized within the Black community. A front-page feature in The Pittsburgh Courier cements her contribution.

chapter 22

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his powerful "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, organized by A. Philip Randolph, a union leader from the era of Roosevelt. Some months later, Dorothy is honored at Langley for her two decades of service, a career made possible by Randolph's previous clash with Roosevelt. During the following years, NASA amplifies its drive to hire Black individuals in scientific and engineering roles. As 1967 begins, NASA is nearing their target of a moon landing as set by Kennedy. However, a devastating incident occurs: the Apollo 1 mission astronauts are killed in a fire during a test run. This tragedy forces the Space Task Force to put in extra hours to ensure stricter safety protocols for subsequent missions. Katherine, pushing herself to the limit, suffers a near-fatal car accident due to exhaustion, but luckily escapes unscathed. Meanwhile, Christine Mann graduates with a master's degree from Virginia State University in spring. Now known by her married name, Darden, she is persuaded to join NASA and swiftly lands a job at Langley. Although she doesn't work directly under Katherine, they share a close bond through their church and social circles.

chapter 23

The Apollo 11 mission, destined for the moon, takes off in July 1969 and captures global attention. Yet, the Black American community perceives the event differently; they question the nation's priorities. Despite billions funneled into enabling two white men to land on the moon, Black Americans on Earth still face discrimination, even when seeking basic amenities like restrooms at gas stations. The lack of Black representation in NASA, despite recent recruitment drives, reflects the economic disparity. The astronaut program, notably, doesn't feature a single Black man. Nevertheless, Star Trek, a popular television series, offers a glimmer of hope. It features Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman, as Lieutenant Uhura, the starship Enterprise's communication officer. Although Nichols initially intended to leave after the first season, a personal request from Martin Luther King convinced her to continue. As an avid fan, he emphasized the importance of Black representation on such a prominent platform. Meanwhile, Katherine savors a weekend getaway with her sorority sisters at a Black-owned resort in the Poconos, watching the moon landing on television. The moment is poignant for her. Having once worked in a service job at a hotel, like her father, she now relishes the leisure of a guest, witnessing an event she played a part in. For Katherine, the moon landing embodied the infinite possibilities of the future.

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