Heidi Stevens: Katherine Johnson and her 'Hidden Figures' story inspired young people, including a budding astronaut from Chicago, to chase their dreams

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US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 24, 2015. - NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images North America/TNS

I thought about Akosua Haynes on Monday morning, when I read about the death of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson at age 101.

Johnson was a human computer whose exacting calculations launched John Glenn into orbit and, equally important, brought him safely back to Earth. Her work and life remained largely unknown to the public at large until Margot Lee Shetterly published her bestselling book, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” which inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie, “Hidden Figures.” Taraji P. Henson starred as Johnson.

Akosua is a Chicago middle schooler who so loved “Hidden Figures” that she penned a letter to Shetterly to let the author know the book cemented her decision to become a NASA astronaut.

The letter won first place in a Library of Congress writing contest that invited fourth- through 12th-graders to write authors and let them know the impact of their work. Close to 47,000 students from across the United States entered the contest. Akosua, a fifth-grader at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Hyde Park at the time, won the fourth- through sixth-grade division.

That was in 2018. I asked contest organizers to put me in touch with Akosua so I could tell her congratulations and hear more about her story. She told me she began planning her path to space at age 4.

“I’ve dressed up like an astronaut for at least four Halloweens now,” she said at the time. “I really want to be an astrobotanist. They study plants in space, and if we do go to Mars, which we probably will, I want to be able to grow my own food in space and not just eat frozen things.”

She threw a “Hidden Figures”-themed birthday party in fourth grade, and she made clear that her friends were to show up prepared.

“Everybody had to read the book, period,” she told me. “You had to be two-thirds done with the book, or you just couldn’t come.”

She told Shetterly all about the party in her letter.

“I wanted them to read your book to see the magic in math and how useful it can be,” she wrote. “Right before my party I looked up the definition for analytic geometry because Katherine used it to calculate the trajectory of John Glenn’s Mercury capsule — useful magic!”

“Although John Glenn respected Katherine Johnson,” Akosua continued, “they lived in two different worlds. When I read about the discrimination that Katherine and the computers had to put up with (people not trusting them, separate bathrooms), it made me think what it would have been like to live in the Jim Crow time period. I asked myself if I would have been able to work so well under pressure. I felt proud of Ms. Johnson.”

Akosua’s parents took her to southern Illinois to watch the solar eclipse in August 2017. She finished reading “Hidden Figures” on the train ride back, and she told Shetterly about that too.

“When the moon had completely covered the sun,” Akosua wrote, “I looked up and wondered how Katherine Johnson felt when she helped John Glenn orbit the Earth.”

“It was my job,” Johnson told the Daily Press in 2016. “They gave me questions and I worked on them. They wanted to go to the moon, so I looked up the distance to the moon and worked up the equations about how long it would be in space before it got there.”

It’s impossible to measure the ripples made by a life, especially a life that lasted more than a century. We don’t have an equation for that. But as we pause, in quiet wonder, to marvel at all that Johnson gave us, I hope we include the countless young people she inspired to chase their own dreams — into spaces that may have seemed off limits, into fields where they’re pioneers, into greatness, maybe even into space.

“I have a little STEM program on Saturdays, and we’ve been learning about propulsion, and we’ve been reviewing decimals and coordinate planes,” Akosua told me back in fifth grade. “I’m trying to make myself more like Katherine Johnson every day.”

Rest in power, Katherine Johnson. Thank you for sharing the full weight of yours.

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(Heidi Stevens writes the daily "Balancing Act" column for the Chicago Tribune, where she has worked since 1998.)

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