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Daughters of trailblazing NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson remember her legacy

The daughters of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician portrayed in "Hidden Figures," joined TODAY to discuss her achievements upon the release of her posthumous memoir, "My Remarkable Journey."
/ Source: TODAY

For some people, being raised by a NASA mathematician would've been difficult, but for the daughters of Katherine Johnson, famously played by Taraji P. Henson in the Oscar-nominated film "Hidden Figures," there was lots of good.

"It was a challenge," one of her daughters, Joylette Hylick, told Al Roker on the 3rd Hour of TODAY. "My father was also a science major, so we never heard, 'Math is hard.'"

Katherine Johnson with her daughters.
Katherine Johnson with her daughters.TODAY

"It was always fun," added her sister Katherine Moore. "As we went through math, it was just another subject that they expected us to do well because she said, 'If you expect nothing, you get nothing.'"

Growing up, the sisters said their mother often would show them satellites in the night sky.

"She would know at what angle and what time we can see it," Hylick recalled.

"She loved her work. She always talked about the joy of learning," Moore said.

Many of the lesser-known aspects of their mother's life are detailed in Johnson's posthumous memoir, "My Remarkable Journey," released Tuesday.

Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia and graduated from college at 18 years old. Following a 33-year career at NASA, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her pioneering work as a Black women in STEM.

She died in February 2020 at 101.

Johnson's calculations were critical to landing the first man on the moon and orbiting the first man around the Earth.
Johnson's calculations were critical to landing the first man on the moon and orbiting the first man around the Earth.TODAY

"I remember at one point she said when she first walked into the office of NASA, there was a desk, and when she sat there, the man got up and walked out," Moore told AL. "She said, 'Oh, well, this is my desk. I'm going to work.' And when they started seeing that she had answers to the questions they needed, no problem."

"Mom's fight was more, shall we say, intellectual in the sense that she wasn't ready to go, 'Fight, fight.' Instead it was like, 'I'm going to outthink you,'" Hylick said.

Johnson died in February 2020 at 101 years old.
Johnson died in February 2020 at 101 years old.TODAY

Johnson's work contributed to the success of astronaut John Glenn, who relied on her calculations in his 1962 mission that made him the first man to orbit the Earth. Her calculations were also critical to the moon landing seven years later.

"She said, if they do what my numbers tell them, they'll come back all right," Hylick said.

Johnson got recognition for her work on a national stage with the 2016 film "Hidden Figures," which told the story of three Black female mathematicians at NASA during the space race of the 1960s. At the 2017 Oscars, when the film was nominated for best picture, she received a standing ovation.

"She said, 'What's all the fuss about? We were just doing our job,'" Hylick said.

Katherine Johnson At Work
Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1962 in Hampton, Virginia.NASA/Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

"Never bragging, there were people at her church for over 50 years that said, 'We never knew what your mother did. She never talked about herself,'" Moore added.

"People were asking us, 'Why are we just now finding out about this?' Well, it wasn't up to us," Moore continued. "It was up to the historians and the folks that make a difference in what you know and what you read. So that's when you say hidden no more."