Katherine Johnson: The ‘hidden figure’ key to NASA’s early missions

AJC Sepia Black History Month

During the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Taraji P. Henson, stars of the Oscar-nominated, Atlanta-filmed “Hidden Figures,” took the stage to announce the nominees for best documentary.

With them was a star beyond compare: Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Henson in the film about African-American women who faced institutional racial and gender barriers as they performed roles vital to launching NASA's early missions. The crowd rose for a roaring ovation, some in the audience moved to tears after Johnson's brief remarks.

»MORE: Read AJC Sepia's full Black History Month Series

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at her desk at NASA’s Langley Research Center with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device.” CONTRIBUTED BY NASA

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In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last year, NASA christened the new $23 million Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Clark Atlanta University honored her at its 2017 commencement.

“My purpose was to help as many people as often and as long as I could,” Johnson said in a video clip Clark Atlanta released at the time. A West Virginia native preternaturally brilliant at math, Johnson started high school at age 10 and graduated from what is now West Virginia State University at 18. She worked as a teacher before going to work for the government, retiring in 1986.

Her skill at working complicated calculations essential to space travel was simply unparalleled. As depicted in "Hidden Figures," which filmed at area locations including the Lockheed Martin plant and a hangar at the General Lucius D. Clay National Guard Center in Marietta, astronaut John Glenn (who died in 2016) insisted she sign off before his historic flight.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson during an East Room ceremony November 24, 2015 at the White House in Washington, DC. Seventeen recipients were awarded with the nationÕs highest civilian honor. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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But as indicated by the title of the movie, based on Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction book, the key contributions Johnson and her colleagues made were largely unknown to history.

“When I was reading the script, I was just excited that someone was portraying an African-American woman in a different light — not just a maid,” Monae said during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the 2017 Oscars. “I thought it was fiction.”

Shetterly grew up in Hampton, where much of “Hidden Figures” is set, and Johnson was a longtime family friend.

Pioneering human computer  Katherine Johnson at the naming event for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, Friday.

Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

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Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

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“We knew a lot of the people in the community who worked at NASA,” Shetterly said. “It was sort of no big deal. In Hampton, there is NASA, there are the shipyards, the military. It was just kind of a normal thing that a lot of those people were African-American, and a lot were women, and some were both.”

Thanks to her book, and the movie upon which it was based, the historic achievements of Johnson and her colleagues, the late Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, are hidden no longer. Aug. 26 will be Johnson's 100th birthday.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (2nd L) appears onstage with (L-R) actors Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer speak onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

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Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.