Hidden Figures, a movie that chronicles the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson and the other black female “human computers” who helped pioneer America’s space program, is set to premiere in theaters Friday. The movie stars Taraji P. Henson, of Empire fame, as Johnson, the brilliant NASA mathematician who personally calculated the launch trajectory for the first American to enter space. Johnson also participated in the calculations for John Glenn’s historic first orbiting of Earth and in the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
“The world needs to know her,” said Henson. “Whenever I watch any footage of anything about NASA, you see men. You see a smoke-filled room full of suits and ties. You never see women.”
At the Langley facility in Hampton, Virginia, Johnson was one of a number of black women employed by NASA to perform the calculations required for the more prestigious engineers’ work. After beginning her career humbly processing the black box data from crashed planes, she was asked to help an all-male flight research team on a temporary basis. After witnessing Johnson’s skills first hand, the research team asked that she remain with them permanently. Despite not being treated with the same respect as male engineers, Johnson, now 98, has said she never felt intimidated.
“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men,” said Johnson in a 2011 interview. “Men don’t pay attention to small things. They aren’t interested in how you do it, just [in] give me the answer.”
In 2015, Johnson was rewarded for her accomplishments with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the most prestigious federal honor that can be awarded to American civilians.
Watch an interview with Johnson below.