Hidden History: NASA mathematician in ‘Hidden Figures’ never bragged, daughter says

Katherine Moore

GREENSBORO, N.C. (WNCN) — The Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures” focuses on three women who were instrumental in NASA’s space program, and North Carolina has a special connection to one of them.

As a mathematician for NASA, Katherine Johnson performed calculations that helped guide the first American in space, the Apollo mission, and the space shuttle program.

RELATED: More stories from the North Carolina Hidden History special

Johnson’s accomplishments as mathematician earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. But her daughter and namesake, Katherine Moore, said for years she didn’t realize the magnitude of her mother’s achievements.

“She didn’t brag,” said Moore from her Greensboro home. “Whatever she did at work, she left at work. She was mom when she came home – went to our functions. She made sure we stayed active we were all musical were all in the honor society.”

Katherine Johnson in a newspaper clipping.
Katherine Johnson in a newspaper clipping.

Johnson’s brilliant mind earned her the respect of astronauts like John Glenn who trusted her calculations over those of a computer. And decades after the mission that made history, he sent her a card for her 95th birthday.

But Johnson’s mathematical skills weren’t all that set her apart.

Johnson refused to be held back in a profession dominated by white men.

Her daughter said women weren’t normally allowed in meetings at NASA but her mother still went.

“They never sent her out because nine times out of 10, she would have the answers,” recalled Moore.

And through it all, Moore said her mom made everything look simple.

“She just worked to get the people to the moon,” she said.

Even as others began to recognize her mother’s impact, her daughter said she didn’t quite grasp it until her college years.

“The newspaper had just come and was laying on the desk at the library. And I looked down, ‘That’s my mother,'” she said. “I said, ‘Mom, why didn’t you tell us this?’ and she said, ‘I was just doing my job.'”

Hard work, Moore said, is her mother’s legacy — her lesson for little girls and anyone with big dreams.

“You can do anything you want to do.”

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