'Hidden Figures' Gives NASA Mathematicians Long Overdue Movie

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson get their movie.

Hopper Stone/IMDB

On Sunday, the trailer for Hidden Figures — the story of the black female mathematicians who helped make NASA what it is today — was released. The official plot summary goes like this:

As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true-life stories of three of these women, known as “human computers,” we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history’s greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.

Here’s the trailer:

It’s not even Tuesday, and Katherine Johnson, now 97, is having quite the week; she deserves every bit of it. Here’s why.

Johnson in 1966 at NASA.


1. Johnson enrolled in high school when she was just 10 years old.

Born in 1918, Johnson was so gifted she was enrolled in high school at 10. Even NASA was impressed, praising Johnson’s achievement as “truly an amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eight grade.” At 14, she entered West Virginia State College; by 18, she was a college graduate.

2. Johnson was originally hired as a “computer who wears skirts.”

That’s seriously what NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), called its female mathematicians. Beginning in 1935, women were “computers” — those who literally computed — before the space program adopted electronic computers. After World War II, NACA started recruiting African-Americans; Johnson was hired in 1953 as a temp with an all-male flight research team. Johnson, of course, was a BAMF who quickly became a permanent, important part of the team.

3. Johnson was integral in launching America’s first human space flight.

In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to be in space, but a huge hat-tip to Johnson, who calculated the trajectory of his trip. Johnson looked at the problem as a parabola, and worked out the geometry backwards to get it right. The next year, John Glenn personally requested that Johnson recheck the calculations that a computer originally did.

Johnson today, speaking some truth.


4. NASA named a building after her.

It’s called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility and it’s at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This happened in May — meaning that the 97-year old Johnson got to see the same building where she was originally considered too black and too female to work at be named in her honor.

5. Johnson has received the National Medal of Freedom.

In 2015, President Barack Obama gave the nation’s highest civilian honor to Johnson, who spent three decades with NASA. And on Monday, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific announced the real-life inspiration for the main character, Katherine Johnson — who led the computer revolution at NASA that helped put men in space and on the moon — would be honored with the first-ever Arthur B.C. Walker Award for an “outstanding achievement in astronomy and education by an African American scientist.”

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