|Dr. Katherine G. Johnson, NASA research mathematician and inspiration behind movie, "Hidden Figures."|
The blockbuster movie “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of Dr. Katherine G. Johnson, a West Virginia woman whose outstanding mathematical abilities led her to a groundbreaking career at NASA and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
The film’s enormous popularity - it stood at No. 1 in the country for most of January 2017– came as a surprise for the cast and crew, which includes some of Hollywood’s biggest names, as well as for North Carolina Central University (NCCU) alumnus Michael Moore, Johnson’s grandson.
“None of us thought the movie would be such a big hit,” admits Moore, who has made several publicity appearances for the film with his mother, also named Katherine, and his aunt, Joylette.
“I cry every time I see it, because it’s Grandma. That’s how I always knew her, not as a mathematical genius.”
Moore, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., earned his MBA from NCCU in 2016. His grandmother graduated from high school at age 14 and college at 18. In 1938, she became one of the first African-American women to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. A 75-year Diamond member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., she received the organization’s Septima Poinsette Clark Award for her pioneering work and accomplishments at its 67th International Boule in July 2016.
After teaching high school for several years, she went to work at NASA as a mathematician helping to calculate the trajectory for space missions, including the flight of the first American in space and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
Now 98, her health is fragile, but her mind – and her opinions – remain strong, Moore said.
“She doesn’t go out a lot, but we’re going to see if we can get her to go to the Oscars,” he added.
“Hidden Figures” has earned three nominations for the awards, which will be handed out Feb. 26.
The movie is basked on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father also worked at NASA during the 1960s. It follows Johnson and two of her co-workers after they were hired to conduct mathematical computations at the Langley Research Group in Hampton, Va.
“I knew that grandma worked at NASA, because I had seen a flag that she had from Apollo mission, but what that meant didn’t really register,” Moore said. “It’s only in the last five to 10 years that the story trickled out.”
Efforts by Johnson and her colleagues were initially met with skepticism by the white, largely male space engineering team. But the astonishing feats they accomplished – including calculating the trajectory necessary for a spacecraft to reenter the earth’s atmosphere safely – win over critics. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is welcomed into the Apollo program and, as the movie depicts, astronaut John Glenn asks for her by name to do his pre-flight calculations.
Her co-workers from the Computer Group continued to break ground, as well. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) became the first female African-American supervisor at NASA and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was the first to earn an engineering degree. Johnson is the only member of that trio still living.
Moore’s mother, also named Katherine, was the youngest of Katherine Johnson’s three daughters, two of whom survive. Moore grew up in New Jersey, but his family traveled often to visit his grandmother in Hampton, Va., he recalls.
“She and I had a technology and a math kinship; we bonded on that level,” said Moore, who earned computer science degree at Hampton University before enrolling at NCCU. “I knew I wanted to be like Grandma when I went to school.”