Katherine Johnson, A Black NASA Pioneer, A ‘Hidden Figure’

Thanks Oscar-nominated movie 'Hidden Figures' for Katherine Johnson finds acclaim at 98

Fame has finally found Katherine Johnson — and it only took 98 years, six manned moon landings, a best-selling book and an Oscar-nominated movie ‘Hidden Figures‘.

For more than 30 years, Johnson worked as a NASA mathematician at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where she played an unseen but pivotal role in the country’s space missions. That she was an African-American woman in an almost all-male and white workforce made her career even more remarkable.

Now, three decades after retiring from the agency, Johnson is portrayed by actress Taraji Henson in “Hidden Figures,” a film based on a book of the same name. The movie tells how a group of black women — world-class mathematicians all — helped provide NASA with data crucial to the success of the agency’s early spaceflights.

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Suddenly Johnson, who will turn 99 in August, finds herself inundated with interview requests, award banquet invitations and people who just want to stop by and shake her hand.

“I’m glad that I’m young enough still to be living and that they are, so they can look and see, ‘That’s who that is,’ ” she said. “And they are as excited as I am.”

For many people, especially African-Americans, her tale of overcoming racism and sexism is inspirational.

But Johnson is still struggling to figure out what all the fuss is about. “There’s nothing to it — I was just doing my job,” she said during an interview in her living room in Hampton Roads, Va. “They needed information and I had it, and it didn’t matter that I found it. At the time, it was just a question and an answer.”

“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” So said Katherine Johnson, recipient of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom.

Born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers. Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman–a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.

As a computer, she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 combining her math talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.

Finally, a nation acknowledged everything Katherine Johnson did, not just as female scientist but as black female scientist!

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