In 2016, the work of Johnson and her NASA colleagues was chronicled in the book “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly.
The book told the story of how as a research mathematician and “human computer,” Johnson became one of the first African-American women to work at NASA, calculating crucial trajectories for space missions at a time when segregation dictated separate bathrooms.
And this year, “Hidden Figures,” the film adaptation of the book, was lauded with an Academy Award nomination.
Johnson, 98, was not able to travel from her Virginia home to attend the Jersey City gala. But her oldest daughter, Joylette Gobel Hylick, who lives in Mount Laurel, was there to accept the honor.
“I just wish my mother were 40 years younger, because you wouldn’t have been able to get her out of here,” said a tearful Hylick, a retired engineer who also worked at NASA for a year and a half.
She said her mother, played by Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures,” would have loved the center’s focus on children.
The Jersey City science museum’s Genius Awards are a feature of the annual confluence of money, science, business, tech, philanthropy and talent that is the Liberty Science Center Genius Gala. Paul Hoffman, CEO of Liberty Science Center, said the event raised $2.7 million to benefit exhibits and programs.
Tickets for the annual fundraiser, where well-heeled guests posed for photos with a man in an elaborate Transformer costume, started at $1,250 and ran up to $100,000 per table.
Johnson’s calculations sent Alan Shepard into history as the first American to travel to space. She also served as John Glenn’s trusted human check on the early computer flight calculation that made him the first American to orbit Earth.
“She’s always been attracted to kids and curious kids,” Hylick told NJ Advance Media before the gala.
“One of my greatest regrets is that she is unable to meet these young people and inspire them personally,” Hylick added.
Hylick repeated her mother’s constant refrain for the audience: “What did you learn today?”
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