Adam Carlson
February 26, 2017 09:40 PM

Retired mathematician Katherine Johnson — whose pioneering work partially inspired Hidden Figures — appeared at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, where she was hailed as “a true NASA and American hero” by Taraji P. Henson, the woman who plays her onscreen.

Johnson, 98, appeared onstage alongside Henson and Hidden Figures two other lead actresses, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer, as they announced the winner for Best Documentary Feature.

In their introductory remarks before handing out the prize, the film’s stars focused on the importance of unearthing history’s hidden stories, such as the life and career of Johnson and her fellow black NASA employees Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, all featured in Figures.

Johnson — in a wheelchair — then came out from the wings, to a sustained ovation.

She responded with a simple, “Thank you very much.”

Katherine Johnson (blue) onstage at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Kevin Winter/Getty

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Hidden Figures, which follows Jackson, Johnson and Vaughan and their crucial contributions to the American space program, became a runaway box office hit since its December release. It earned three Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture.

Henson has previously spoken about her deep commitment to the film, saying, “This became my passion project. I was like, ‘I have to do this movie.’ ”

“These women changed the course of history because they didn’t let those obstacles get in the way and they didn’t focus on problems,” Henson said. “They focused on solutions.”

• Check out PEOPLE’s full 2017 Academy Awards coverage and complete winners list!

Johnson has given her seal of approval, too.

She “saw the movie and she really liked it,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book upon which Figures is based. “So I think that is pretty much the highest praise you can give, when the person whose life is being shown on the screen says, ‘Yep, that kind of looks like it!’ ”

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