Fame has finally found Katherine Johnson – and it only took 98 years, six manned moon landings, a best-selling book and an Oscar-nominated movie.
For more than 30 years, Johnson worked as a NASA mathematician at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where she played an unseen but pivotal role in the country’s space missions. That she was an African-American woman in an almost all-male and white workforce made her career even more remarkable.
Now, three decades after retiring from the agency, Johnson is portrayed by actress Taraji Henson in “Hidden Figures,” a film based on a book of the same name. The movie tells how a group of black women – world-class mathematicians all – helped provide NASA with data crucial to the success of the agency’s early spaceflights. “Hidden Figures” was nominated Tuesday for an Academy Award for best picture.
Suddenly Johnson, who will turn 99 in August, finds herself inundated with interview requests, award banquet invitations and people who just want to stop by and shake her hand.
“I’m glad that I’m young enough still to be living and that they are, so they can look and see, ‘That’s who that is,’ ” she said. “And they are as excited as I am.”
For many people, especially African-Americans, her tale of overcoming racism and sexism is inspirational.
But Johnson is still struggling to figure out what all the fuss is about. “There’s nothing to it – I was just doing my job,” she said during an interview in her living room in Hampton Roads, Va. “They needed information and I had it, and it didn’t matter that I found it. At the time, it was just a question and an answer.”
Henson spent hours with Johnson before the filming got underway, according to her publicist, Pamela Sharp, who said the actress described the experience as “meeting a true hero.”
Johnson speaks these days with a slight rasp in her voice but carries the same confidence that prompted NASA engineers to turn to her for help in planning the Mercury and Apollo space missions by, among other things, calculating the distance between Earth and the moon.
Her daughters, Joylette Goble Hylick and Katherine Goble Moore, said she’s seen “Hidden Figures” three times. And while Johnson doesn’t remember seeing every single shot or scene in the film, her memories of her work are sharp.
Clad in a pink turtleneck and a snow white shawl, with her silver hair styled gently atop her head, Johnson recalled how John Glenn, the astronaut and longtime senator who died last month, insisted on her calculations for Friendship 7, the first mission to orbit Earth.
“Get that girl,” she remembered Glenn saying.
How, she was asked, did she know Glenn was referring to her?
Johnson shrugged and said, “He knew I had done [the calculations] before for him, and they trusted my work,” she said. “He asked me to do it, and I did it.”
At the end of the day, “color didn’t matter” at NASA, she said. You were only as good as your last answer.
“They never asked me to go back over [my calculations] because when I did it, I had done my best, and it was right,” she said.
Johnson said she was one of the first women to attend an editorial meeting at the agency. Usually only the men wrote papers, and they would all gather in a room to discuss the findings.
She said she “wanted to know what they talk about.” So she asked. And when someone noted that women didn’t attend those meetings, she followed up with: “Is there a law that says I can’t go?”
And her boss said, ” ‘Let her go,’ ” Johnson said. “No big thing. I hadn’t given it any thought. And the first time I went into one, a fellow asked a question and he said: ‘Katherine is here, ask her. She did it.’ “
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Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, when Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House and rotary dial telephones were still brand-new. Some of Johnson’s earliest memories involved counting games – counting stair steps, dishes, anything. She was so eager to learn to read that she followed her older brother, Horace Coleman, to elementary school before she was old enough to attend.
She started second grade at the age of 4. When she was 10, her family moved to Institute, W.Va. – 120 miles away – so she could attend high school because there wasn’t one for black children in White Sulphur Springs. Johnson graduated from what is now West Virginia State University at 18.
After college, she began to work as a teacher. She married James Goble two years later. (He died in 1956; she married her current husband, James Johnson, three years after that.)
In the early 1950s, she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, was looking for mathematicians to work at Langley Research Center. By 1953, Johnson was working there as “a computer” – the title that the agency gave to those who worked on calculations.
By the time she retired in 1986, Johnson had worked on Glenn’s flight, the moon landings and the 1970 rescue of Apollo 13. She also helped write one of the first textbooks on space.
The Johnsons’ home is filled with pictures: Snapshots of their six grandchildren, as well as an Annie Leibovitz portrait of Johnson, in which she posed with her hands on her hips and her lips painted her favorite shade of pink. She talked about her life after finishing a meal of bacon, hard-boiled eggs and a cup of coffee so strong she had to dilute it twice with water.
Johnson was modest and matter-of-fact about her achievements until the subject turned to the Presidential Medal of Freedom she was awarded in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama.
“That was a thrill,” she said of receiving the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The respect apparently goes both ways – in his final State of the Union address last year, Obama mentioned Johnson in the same breath as Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and George Washington Carver.
But Hollywood is a different kind of public recognition.
Hylick, Johnson’s eldest daughter, has seen the movie nine times. Each time, she says, she “learns a little bit more, and appreciates it a little bit more.”
“It’s wonderful – despite her humility, everyone is finding out what she did,” said her daughter, who had just learned that the local library where Johnson grew up will be named in her honor.
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Growing up in Hampton, Margot Lee Shetterly heard stories about Johnson and the other black women at NASA from her father, who also worked there. Shetterly decided to write “Hidden Figures” six years ago. The book was released in September, and Shetterly was a consultant on the film.
She said the reason Johnson and her co-workers’ stories were “hidden” was complex. Some of it was rooted in racism (the African-American women were relegated to a separate office), some of it was sexism (calculations were considered “women’s work”), and some of it was simply that Johnson and her co-workers were wives and mothers as well as mathematicians.
Johnson, she said, “has given us a way to shine a light on a lot of women who have not been talked about. None of these women really got the recognition they deserved and . . . now an entire group of women are being recognized for the work that they did.”
Kimberly Holmes, who works at George Mason University and wrote her dissertation on the experiences of black women who pursue science careers, said the movie will have an impact on the aspirations of African-American children and on people who harbor stereotypes about black achievement.
“Albert Einstein isn’t the only scientist, and we’re beginning to see that more,” Holmes said.
Johnson’s grandson, Troy Hylick, believes there’s only one word to describe the women in the film and book: “Superhuman.”
“Because of all of the roadblocks that were put in their place, and they had to get over and get around and get under,” he said. “They became superhuman because all of those things that they had to do, just to do the job they were in there to do.”
Hylick, who, like his grandmother, once taught math, wonders how many other stories like this remain untold. “Twenty more? Fifty more? A thousand more?”
“Whatever that truth is,” he said, “we’re better off when we hear the truth. All of it.”