"There's no protocol for women attending," says a white man in a suit holding a sheaf of papers.
"There's no protocol for a man circling the Earth either, sir," Taraji P. Henson retorts in my favorite line from the new trailer for the movie "Hidden Figures," due theaters this January.
Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician at NASA working on the space program in its earliest days, beginning in the 1950s. Many of NASA's first missions were made possible by Johnson's intrepid, unparalleled calculations.
The movie is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up near NASA's Langley Research Center, where Johnson and her colleagues worked.
Johnson still lives near Langley in Hampton, Virginia, where she'll be celebrating her 98th birthday later this month. Keep scrolling to learn the true story of her incredible life.
As a child, Johnson has said in interviews, she loved to count. Her father placed a premium on education and insisted all four of his children go to college, working overtime to pay for it. Johnson says this atmosphere was crucial to her success. "I was always around people who were learning something. I liked to learn."
Later, she was mentored by Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who suggested she aim to become a research mathematician. He created the classes he knew she would need to succeed, including one in which she was the only student. Throughout her education, she says she succeeded in part because she was always asking questions — even when people tried to ignore her, her hand stayed up.
Her move to working on rockets came from her endless curiosity and talent. She'd been pulled in to work with an all-male flight research team on a temporary basis. She was so good they chose not to send her back.
And while the female computers weren't given the same respect as male engineers, that never fazed Johnson. "Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men," she said in a 2011 interview. "Men don't pay attention to small things. They aren't interested in how you do it, just [in] give me the answer."
Source: The Human Computer Project
As for Johnson, her calculations underpinned many of NASA's most important projects.
In 1961, on the strength of Johnson's work, Alan Shepherd became the first American to go into space. Johnson calculated his trajectory, the path he would take from launch to landing. If she was wrong, the best case scenario was that NASA wouldn't have known where to pick him up.
"Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start," Johnson said in an interview. "I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte."
Last year, President Obama gave Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the most prestigious honor available to civilians.
Earlier this year, NASA dedicated a new data center on Langley's campus to Johnson. (The cast of the movie filmed a video to congratulate her.) She was also given a Silver Snoopy award by astronaut Leland Melvin, which recognizes "outstanding performance, contributing to flight safety and mission success." That trophy will join, among many others that Johnson has received, an American flag that flew to the moon.
Margot Lee Shetterly's book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" will be published September 6.
The movie "Hidden Figures," starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, will be released January 13.