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The unbelievable life of the forgotten genius who turned Americans' space dreams into reality

“There’s no protocol for women attending,” says a white man in a suit holding a sheaf of papers.

“There’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth either, sir,” Taraji P. Henson retorts in my favorite line from the new trailer for the movie “Hidden Figures,” due theaters this January.

Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician at NASA working on the space program in its earliest days, beginning in the 1950s. Many of NASA’s first missions were made possible by Johnson’s intrepid, unparalleled calculations.

The movie is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up near NASA’s Langley Research Center, where Johnson and her colleagues worked.

Johnson still lives near Langley in Hampton, Virginia, where she’ll be celebrating her 98th birthday later this month. Keep scrolling to learn the true story of her incredible life.

As a child, Johnson has said in interviews, she loved to count. Her father placed a premium on education and insisted all four of his children go to college, working overtime to pay for it. Johnson says this atmosphere was crucial to her success. “I was always around people who were learning something. I liked to learn.”

As a child, Johnson has said in interviews, she loved to count. Her father placed a premium on education and insisted all four of his children go to college, working overtime to pay for it. Johnson says this atmosphere was crucial to her success. "I was always around people who were learning something. I liked to learn."
 
20th Century Fox/YouTube

Sources: NASA, interview

Johnson graduated high school at 14 and college at 18. Her high school principal sowed the first seeds for her career in space — he would walk her home after school pointing out the constellations overhead. At college, a family friend from her home town who knew her talent for math ordered her to enroll in her class.
 
Johnson graduated high school at 14 and college at 18. Her high school principal sowed the first seeds for her career in space — he would walk her home after school pointing out the constellations overhead. At college, a family friend from her home town who knew her talent for math ordered her to enroll in her class.
 
Faculty circle at West Virginia State, Johnson’s alma mater.Google Street View

 Sources: NASA, interview, interview

Later, she was mentored by Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who suggested she aim to become a research mathematician. He created the classes he knew she would need to succeed, including one in which she was the only student. Throughout her education, she says she succeeded in part because she was always asking questions — even when people tried to ignore her, her hand stayed up.


Sources: NASA, interview, interview

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