On Nov. 24, 2015, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the nation’s highest civilian honor, to 17 men and women. Among them was 97-year-old retired African American NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, selected for her contributions to the space program, starting with the Mercury missions in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, through the Apollo moon missions in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, and ending with the space shuttle missions in the mid ‘80s. Among other things, she calculated the trajectories of America’s first manned mission into orbit and the first Moon landing.
Awarding Johnson this well-deserved honor doesn’t just shine a spotlight on a single Black female STEM pioneer. It also illuminates an obscure but important piece of history. Johnson was just one of dozens of mathematically talented Black women recruited to work as “human computers” at the Langley Memorial Research Laboratory in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Many of whom, including Johnson, are the subject of Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated film, “Hidden Figures,” which has brought more fame to these women than the Presidential award.
They were so named because before machines came along, they crunched the numbers necessary for figuring out everything from wind tunnel resistance to rocket trajectories to safe reentry angles.
For more than 30 years, Johnson worked as a NASA mathematician at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., 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 P. 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.
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.