Black NASA Pioneer, Katherine Johnson, Finds Fame at 98

Fame has finally found Katherine Johnson — and it only took a half-century, 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, 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. “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.

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Source: The Washington Post | Victoria St. Martin

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