‘Hidden Figures' Broke Ground for Modern Figures at NASA

Katherine Johnson still has a head for numbers at 98

At 98 years old, one of the three inspiring female African-American mathematicians the Academy Award-nominated film “Hidden Figures” is based still has a head for numbers and would like to be back in her chair at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The book and movie “Hidden Figures” tells the story of Katherine 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, when their job assignments in the segregated computers division at Langley were far beneath the heights they would eventually climb through excellent work and perseverance achieving equality.

Johnson’s first job at NASA was as a computer programmer in a segregated unit of all African-American women, where her brilliant math skills were recognized.

“I miss working,” she says. “I worked all my life, all kinds of jobs.”

The bigger challenge was overcoming racial prejudice.

John Glenn trusted Johnson’s telemetry calculations over those from computers that were relatively new at the time.

“Yes, he was like me,” she said. “He didn't trust … the computers.”

He knew her equations done by hand had worked for some very high-stakes missions.

So how did she feel about so much weight riding on her arithmetic?

“No problem.”

Math never stumped Johnson.

She is a legend now at NASA, where a lot has changed since her 33 years there. She was a major catalyst for that change. Her brilliant mind for math led to great strides in the race to get to space and back.

She says she was just doing her job, but her parts putting America out front in the pioneering days of the space race and bringing her race from the back of the bus when they rode to work both earned a place in history.

The movie offers only a glimpse of Johnson's life away from NASA. The single mother of three daughters has a new husband who is still in her life.

Christine Darden was hired as a computer programmer in 1967, two years before NASA put a man on the moon. As a trained mathematician, she eventually wanted to do more.

Turned down by her immediate supervisors when she asked if she could work in an engineering group, she had the courage to go to a more senior supervisor because of the shoulders of women she stood on, like those of Katherine Johnson.

“We were enabled to move up in our jobs because of what they did and the way they worked,” Darden said.

She rose to the rank of supervisor and retired as head of the department of education and legislative affairs.

Engineer Julie Williams-Byrd is one of the women NASA designated a "modern figure." Right now, NASA is looking at sending people to Mars.

“Thinking about sending humans to Mars, we start with a concept, right, we start visualizing,” she says.

Williams-Byrd has her name on the door at NASA, something Katherine Johnson may have dreamed of when she was creating trajectories in her head.

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