Few people know how three women of colour changed the course of space exploration
Hidden Figures relates the little-known story of three brilliant women at NASA in the early-1960s. Directed by Theodore Melfi, the film follows Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Taraji P Henson), who played a key role in calculating the trajectories for astronaut John Glenn’s historic orbit of the earth.
Katherine and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), crossed racial and gender oundaries at the height of the Cold War. All three of them worked in the highly competitive fields of analytical geometry, engineering and rocket science, and played a pivotal role in the Space Race.
Their contributions might have remained hidden, had it not been for Margot Lee Shetterly, who brought their stories to the world’s attention in her book, Hidden Figures, on which the film is based. One of the brightest minds of her time, Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former US President Barack Obama, in 2015.
At 98, she remains sharp and witty, with a great sense of humour. Looking elegant in a pink sweater and grey skirt, she sat down for a chat about her life and work, along with Joylette Hylick, one of her three daughters.
What kind of child were you?
Katherine Johnson: I was a bad little girl (laughs). No, really, I was an ordinary girl. But at school, as soon as the teachers asked a question, I always knew the correct answers before anybody else.
What did you enjoy about math?
KJ: I liked to count. When I washed the dishes, I would count them. When I was older, I liked to count the stars.
I loved to learn about the stars.
As we see in the movie, there were enormous difficulties for ‘computers’ like you at NASA.
KJ: Segregation was the custom. The white people went their way and I went mine. When I moved to my new office in Flight Research, I sat down at a desk, and I remember this fellow next to me, (he) moved.
Can you discuss the calculations you did for John Glenn’s mission?
KJ: I just used a pencil and paper. I developed a set of equations to tell where he would be in relation to the Earth. I was computing on paper where he was in the capsule, and I could give him the coordinates of Earth at that point, so he could get back home safely.
John Glenn said he wanted you to do the calculations. He trusted you more than computers.
KJ: Yes. He said, ‘I want the girl to do the equations.’ They put all these equations in the computer and got the calculations, but John Glenn said, ‘I will use the computer’s equations if it gets the same results as ‘the girl’ gets.’ It was simple for me. I had to calculate by hand. It took me a day and a half, but I did it — I got the same answer as the computer!”
You are a great role model. What would your message to your people be?
KJ: My message has always been: do your best. Do your work as if someone’s watching or listening. So that means just do the best you can, all the time.
And what is your secret to living a good, long life?
KJ: I don’t know. I can’t believe I am 98 years old.
JH: Mom, if somebody asked if you wanted to go out into space right now, what would you tell them?
KJ: When? Let’s go!
Hidden Figures releases on February 17.