Students write NASA’s ‘hidden figure’ Katherine Johnson
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — When Michael Jones’ dance teacher at Southland College Prep Charter High School in suburban Chicago began to choreograph an interpretive routine set to the score from “Hidden Figures,” the 11th-grader responded with three words:
“That’s my aunt.”
Katherine Johnson — the groundbreaking NASA mathematician whose work and determination are at the center of the book and film “Hidden Figures” — is actually Jones’ great-aunt. But it’s close enough for a good class project.
All of this explains why Jones, on Monday afternoon, paid a visit to his 98-year-old great-aunt in Newport News. He went to deliver hundreds of letters written by Southland students who had seen the film and wanted to express their admiration and appreciation for an African-American woman who helped send men into space, back in a time and place where neither blacks nor females were given much of a role in science and technical fields.
“It made her really happy,” Jones said. “She talked about how nice it felt to know that she could have that effect on people and get some young people interested in mathematics and science. She’s always wanted to help people learn.
“She told me that back when she was in school, even if she understood the lesson, she would still ask questions because she wanted to make sure everyone else learned it, too. It’s never just about her.”
Johnson was not made available to speak with reporters, but Jones and his mother, Carol, were able to spend several minutes with her going through the two scrapbooks in which they had compiled the letters.
Carol Jones, the daughter of Johnson’s brother-in-law, said she has always been close with her aunt. She and her family have regularly visited with her relatives on the East Coast. When her son wanted to visit some colleges on his spring break, she knew it would be a perfect opportunity to see her aunt.
Both Carol and Michael Jones said they knew that Johnson had worked at NASA during the space race, but they never knew what she did or how important her work was.
“She was just my regular aunt,” Carol Jones said. “We had parties at her house. I knew she had helped John Glenn out, but it was not until the movie that I really understood the magnitude of her work.”
Added Michael: “I knew she had a job at NASA, but when she talked about it, she would just say, ‘Oh, you know, I was just doing my job.’ When she got the (Medal of Freedom) from President Obama, I began to realize how big her contributions had been.”
Johnson was one of the “human computers” whose intricate calculations tracked the precise trajectories and re-entry points of manned spacecrafts such as the one in which Glenn orbited the Earth in 1962 and the one in which Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
She and her work remained almost entirely unknown until last year, when Hampton author Margot Lee Shetterly put out the book “Hidden Figures,” detailing the many cultural obstacles Johnson and her colleagues had to overcome in the 1950s at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. The book was then adapted into a film that was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Suddenly, as she approaches her 99th birthday, Johnson finds herself very much in demand. In addition to receiving that medal (and a kiss on the cheek) from President Obama, she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz and appeared onstage at the Oscars (after flying to Hollywood by private jet).
But most of all, she has stressed in interviews, she is excited to be able to make STEM courses seem cool to a generation of young minds.
Monica Fountain, director of communications for Southland College Prep High School, said Johnson was thrilled to hear about the effect she had on more than 500 students in suburban Chicago.
“Everyone saw the movie, and it was a transformation to see how the kids embraced the messages,” Fountain said. “It’s a very powerful story about that period in history. And one of our students, who is a math genius herself, saw that Dr. Johnson was using Euler’s method to do her computations, and the student asked if she could demonstrate Euler’s method as well.
“So that’s social studies and math, and then this letter-writing exercise is English. She has had an impact on Southland across the board, and we’re very grateful for that.”