“Hidden Figures”—the movie about a group of brilliant female African-American mathematicians who aided NASA during the space race—took the second spot at the box office in its first weekend of wide release. The movie features the story of Katherine G. Johnson, a longtime Presbyterian and 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film tells the true story of Johnson and her colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who worked as “human computers” with the burgeoning space program of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were charged with collecting flight data and verifying that NASA’s newly introduced electronic computers had correctly calculated the details of space missions.
A member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia, for more than 50 years, Johnson served the church in several leadership roles including, not surprisingly given her gift with numbers, its finance chair.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, former pastor at Carver Memorial and now Union Presbyterian Seminary’s president and professor of New Testament, called Johnson “a true space heroine, but one of the people you rarely hear about.” Blount spoke of Johnson’s humility, saying he had been the pastor at Carver Memorial for three years before he ever heard about her early work at NASA.
“She’s been a wonderful Presbyterian, [and she] served in all kinds of capacities at the church when I was there,” added Blount.
A NASA mathematician and aerospace technologist from 1953 until 1986, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program beginning with the Mercury launches. Johnson was initially hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African Americans and women.
Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space and for her 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer, in this case for fellow Presbyterian John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.
She is also famed for her trajectory calculations of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first human voyage to the moon, and on-the-fly computations that enabled the Apollo 13 astronauts to return home safely from space. In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the space shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in the science and technology fields.
In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Johnson co-authored more than 20 important scientific papers for NASA. On May 5, 2016, the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s historic rocket launch and splashdown, the new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Gregg Brekke, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Katherine G. Johnson
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers
Jed Koball, Peru
Jenny Valles, Peru
Karla Ann Koll, Costa Rica
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Dear God, inspire us to “set aflame” the story and teachings of your Son, Jesus Christ. May we all feel the energy and enthusiasm of youth as we spread your word. Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, February 26, 2017, the Transfiguration of the Lord (Year A)