With an all-star cast including Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons – not to mention a compelling storyline set during the first manned NASA shuttle launch – Hidden Figures is set to wow audiences, critics, and is likely to earn some hefty award show nominations, if not wins.
But did you know that the movie is based on a true story?
Well, it is, and at the heart of that story is a woman named Katherine Johnson.
She was born a farmer’s daughter in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, where school for African-Americans stopped at 8th grade. But Katherine’s father instilled a sense of equality in her from an early age, driving his children to school 120 miles away so they could continue their education.
“My dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’ I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
Perhaps not better, but definitely smarter, as it turned out.
From the time she was little, Katherine loved counting things – anything and everything, and she had no mind or inclination to stop.
“I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed…anything that could be counted, I did.”
Katherine graduated from high school at the age of 14 and went on to college, where she caught the eye of a mathematics professor who promised her that, when the chance for a great job came along, he would make sure that she was prepared.
Even though Johnson took a few teaching jobs after graduation, her heart was set on making her living as a research mathematician. When she spotted an advertisement in the paper for “black women computers” at Langley Research Center, she went and threw her hat into the ring.
It was 1958 when she joined NASA. Her job was to do the math.
And so she did. Katherine was the one who calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s 1961 trip into space. It was America’s first foray into the great unknown, and she was standing at the forefront of the numbers, at any rate.
“Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to computer where it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
Even though NASA was using actual computers by the time John Glenn went into space in 1962, they still depended on Katherine to check the computer’s math – which made for one nervous woman as she watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969.
“I had done the calculations and knew they were correct. But just like driving to Hampton in traffic from Williamsburg this morning, anything could happen. I didn’t want anything to happen and it didn’t.”
Katherine retired from NASA in 1986 but she stays involved, talking to children about opportunities in science and mathematics. She’s 98 years old.
“I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to work.'”
Hidden Figures releases nationwide this weekend and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.
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