What would life be like if we never landed on the moon? “Timeless” comes scarily close to answering that question on Monday night’s (Nov. 27) episode, “Space Travels.” After almost dying on their last mission, the time-traveling trio jump right back into action to catch up with Flynn (Goran Visnjic), who’s landed in Texas in June 1969, when America waited with baited breath to find out if the astronauts on Apollo 11 would successfully land on the moon.
In order to keep Flynn from rewriting one of America’s most proudest moments in history, Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter), and Rufus (Malcolm Barett) head out of the control room and into the basement level of NASA to seek the assistance of Katherine Johnson (Nadine Ellis). This female African American space scientist, mathematician, and physicist, was until recently an unsung hero of NASA. Her contributions to the space program are incalculable — but as a minority, her accomplishments were glossed over. That is, until now.
In 2015, President Barak Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive. It’s nothing short of awesome to see Johnson finally receive the first-class recognition she has always deserved. Aside from getting the guest star treatment on “Timeless,” a thorough dive into her background and career will be portrayed in the upcoming film, “Hidden Figures.”
Johnson’s role is in the extremely capable hands of Oscar nominee and “Empire” star, Taraji P. Henson. The movie, based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Sheerly, slated to open in theaters Jan. 7, is being promoted with the following tagline: “Meet the woman you don’t know, behind the mission you do.”
So, what exactly did she do?
Before computers were fully implemented and used on a daily basis, Johnson’s brain is what NASA relied on to figure out the shuttle’s landing locations. It was her calculations, not a computer’s, on which John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, depended. Since computers weren’t fully trusted then, Glenn never signed off on any game plan until it had received Johnson’s stamp of approval.
With a mind trained to function like a human computer, Johnson considered the Earth and moon’s rotation, the speed and velocity of the shuttle, and could manually figure out when and where the astronauts could safely expect to land. Without her, Apollo 11 would never have had its Hollywood ending. And even though Apollo 13 never made it to the moon after two oxygen tanks exploded, if it wasn’t for Johnson, that shuttle would’ve never made it back in one piece.
Everyone has heard of the first astronaut in space, Alan Shepherd, and can quote Glenn’s infamous first words when he walked upon the moon, but most people are just now learning about Johnson.
“I never took credit, because we worked as a team,” Johnson said in a 2011 interview covered by Business Insider. “It was never just one person.”
This “Timeless” episode serves as a great preview for “Hidden Figures,” which in addition to Johnson’s story, spotlights her co-workers, fellow female scientists who served instrumental, key roles at NASA during Johnsons’ time on the Human Computer Project and beyond: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).
While officially retired since 1986, Johnson, who turned 98 this past summer, continues to give talks and educational speeches. Helping America win the Space Race, and pioneering gender equality during the Civil Rights movement, she is unquestionably one of the most admirable and impressive women of our time, For audiences wanting to know more about Johnson, it’s exciting to know her story’s big screen debut is little more than a month away.
“Timeless” airs on Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.