Secret Space Hero

A new movie reveals the untold story of Katherine Johnson—a black woman who made NASA’s moon landings possible

NASA/LANGLEY

BREAKING BARRIERS: Johnson at NASA in 1962

When you think of early space pioneers, astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin may come to mind. They were the first people to walk on the moon in 1969. But the moon landing wouldn’t have been possible without Katherine Johnson—a woman you may not have heard about. 

Johnson was a mathematician at NASA, the U.S. space agency. During her 30-year career, she calculated trajectories, or paths of flying objects, that sent rockets into space and eventually put astronauts on the moon. Johnson’s contributions to the space program were extraordinary, especially considering the world she lived in. As an African-American born in West Virginia in 1918, Johnson grew up during a time of racial segregation in the South. African-Americans were forced to attend separate schools, drink from separate water fountains, and use separate bathrooms from white people.

But despite this oppression, Johnson’s talents wouldn’t stay hidden. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the U.S. space agency hired dozens of black female mathematicians, including Johnson. These women calculated solutions to the complex engineering problems involved in designing, testing, and flying planes and spacecraft. This month, they will get the recognition they deserve in a new movie called Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name.

MATH WHIZ

Johnson loved math from a young age. After finishing high school at 14, she enrolled at West Virginia State College. She took every math class the school offered. 

Following college, Johnson became a math teacher. Then in 1952, she heard that the U.S. space agency was hiring women to perform flight calculations. Today, computers do this type of work. But back then, computers weren’t yet available. NASA instead relied on human computers—people with simple mechanical calculators and math smarts. Johnson leapt at the chance and was hired.  

HOPPER STONE.TM & © 2016 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

REMAKING HISTORY: Janelle Monáe plays Johnson's colleague Mary Jackson in the movie Hidden Figures.

When Johnson began working at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, though, she had to sit apart from white women who did the same job. Johnson’s colleagues quickly noticed her talent. Soon she was selected to work with a group that included white men and women who would go on to explore the possibility of space fight. 

READY FOR LAUNCH

Eventually, Johnson’s new job focused on determining the exact path a spacecraft would travel from takeoff to touchdown. This required an understanding of projectile motion—the curved path of an object moving through the air.

HOPPER STONE.TM & © 2016 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

MOMENTOUS MEETING: Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, shakes hands with an actor portraying astronaut John Glenn in a scene from the movie.

In 1961, Alan Shepard set out to become the first American in space. Johnson had to calculate the astronaut’s location during every second of his 15-minute flight. This meant accounting for a number of variables, including the force of Earth’s gravity, the planet’s shape, and its speed of rotation. But the challenge didn’t faze Johnson. “Tell me where you want to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up,” she told the engineers.

Johnson’s calculations were correct, and Shepard’s 1961 mission was a success. Soon after, NASA wanted to launch astronaut John Glenn, who died this past December, into orbit around Earth. An early electronic computer calculated the flight trajectory. But Glenn didn’t trust it. He wanted Johnson to check the math. It took her a day and a half, but her numbers confirmed the computer’s calculations, and Glenn safely circled Earth three times.

NASA

LUNAR LANDING: The Apollo 11 mission landed the first astronauts on the moon on July 20, 1969.

TO THE MOON AND BACK

Johnson considers her work on the moon mission her greatest contribution to the space program. The Apollo 11 astronauts had only a small window of time in which to reconnect their lander with the spacecraft orbiting the moon. It was Johnson’s job to figure out the precise rendezvous time so the crew could return home to Earth.

Johnson stayed at NASA until 1986, when she retired. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her achievements. Last year, NASA named a new building after Johnson at Langley. Now 98, Johnson says she’s proud of her groundbreaking place in history: 

“I went to work happy every day for 33 years.”

KRIS CONNOR/WIREIMAGE

GREAT HONOR: In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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