GROUNDBREAKER

The ‘Human Computer’ Behind the Moon Landing Was a Black Woman

In an age of racism and sexism, Katherine Johnson broke both barriers at NASA.

She calculated the trajectory of man’s first trip to the moon, and was such an accurate mathematician that John Glenn asked her to double-check NASA’s computers. To top it off, she did it all as a black woman in the 1950s and ’60s, when women at NASA were not even invited to meetings.

And you’ve probably never heard of her.

Meet Katherine Johnson, the African-American woman who earned the nickname “the human computer” at NASA during its space race golden age.

An upcoming movie called Hidden Figures will celebrate her life and those of her black female colleagues, all of whom did important work against unbelievable odds but whose stories have gone largely unknown. The movie, set to come out in January 2017, will feature Taraji P. Henson as Johnson and music by Pharrell Williams.

In interviews, Johnson, now 97, remembers how her brilliant calculations—which she did largely by hand—forced NASA to accept her.

“I just happened to be working with guys,” she said, “and when they had briefings I asked permission to go. They said, ‘The girls don’t usually go.’ I said, ‘Is there a law?’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’”

So she went. And, with her help, NASA went to the moon.