Katherine Johnson, the movie Hidden Figures protagonist, was something of a child prodigy. Coming from the small West Virginian town of White Sulphur Springs, she graduated from high school at 14 and the historically black West Virginia State University at 18. In 1938, as a graduate student, she became one of three students—and the only woman—to desegregate West Virginia’s state college. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA thanks to the Space Act of 1958.
Johnson’s first big NASA assignment was computing the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s historic flight in 1961. Johnson and her team’s job was to trace out in extreme detail Freedom 7’s exact path from liftoff to splashdown. Since it was designed to be a ballistic flight—in that, it was like a bullet from a gun with a capsule going up and coming down in a big parabola—it was relatively simple in least in the context of what was to come. Nonetheless, it was a huge success and NASA immediately set their sights on America’s first orbital mission.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
Johnson would go on to work on the Apollo program, too, including performing trajectory calculations that assisted the 1969 moon landing. She would retire from NASA in 1986. In 2015, President Obama gave Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.