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Katherine Johnson goes from ‘Hidden Figure’ to Public Treasure

Stacy M. Brown | 2/24/2017, 9:50 a.m.
At 98, Katherine Johnson insists she has lived an ordinary life. However to others, she has proven to be nothing ...
Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. NASA/Bill Ingalls

— At 98, Katherine Johnson insists she has lived an ordinary life. However to others, she has proven to be nothing short of extraordinary.

Johnson is the recipient of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom and last year, was named to People magazine’s list of 25 Women Changing the World.

Now, a movie based on her brilliant 33-year career at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has opened the eyes of millions to this legendary hidden figure.

Based on the book, the movie Hidden Figures is the story of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, who were among the first African-American women to work for NASA during the space race in the 1950s and 1960s.

Their jobs were segregated in computer divisions that undermined their abilities and capabilities of achievement, but their intelligence and poise shined through anyway.

“I miss working,” Johnson said. “I’d go back now.”

After leaving her teaching job in 1953, Johnson began working for NASA and was able to calculate the trajectory for numerous space missions, including the space flight of Alan Shephard, the first American in space, and the trajectory for the famed 1968 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

“I’d do them over if I had to. I’d do anything for anyone,” she said.

At an early age, Johnson developed enviable math skills so much so that even NASA officials wrote a story about her titled, “The Girl Who Loved to Count.”

“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,” Johnson said. “I entered college, I was 15. I was going to be a math teacher because that was it. You could be a math teacher or a nurse but I was told I would make a good research mathematician and they had me take all of the courses in the catalogue.”

When Astronaut John Glenn went to the moon, Johnson said her Hidden Figures crew acted as the computer for the mission. She said calculating everything involved in the flight was like a geometry problem.

“I felt most proud of the success of the Apollo mission. We had to determine so much. Where you were, where the moon would be and how fast the astronauts were going,” Johnson said. “We were really concerned but the astronaut had to do it just as we laid it out. I was looking at the television and hoping that we were right.”

Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers, according to her biography posted by NASA.

By the age of 10, Johnson was a high school freshman, an amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade. Her father was determined that Johnson would have a chance to meet her potential.

“He drove the family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where I could continue my education through high school,” she said.

An achiever at the highest level, Johnson graduated from high school at 14 and from college at 18.

By 1953, the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department, and Johnson found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.

Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7— the mission where he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986.

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, according to NASA.

Still, Johnson said the book, the Academy Award nominated movie, and her celebrated work with NASA aren’t her greatest accomplishments.

“I’m 98. Just staying alive is the greatest accomplishment,” she said.

When accepting People Mlmagazine’s honor, she offered sage advice to others.

“Find out what your dream is and work at it because if you like what you’re doing, you will do well,” Johnson said.