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.