Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician who was a trailblazer both in her field as well as in the fight against racial and gender discrimination. Her work was critical in the success of numerous seminal space missions.
Johnson’s journey with mathematics started in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where she was born on August 26, 1918. In a 2015 interview, she recalled, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” Her fascination towards math was not deterred by the obstacles she faced early on in her life. Her hometown’s public school only permitted black students until eighth grade, so her family moved 120 miles away so that she could attend high school. At the age of 18, when most students only start attending college, Johnson graduated summa cum laude from the historically black West Virginia State College with degrees in mathematics and French. In 1939, after teaching for a few years, she took up an offer to attend West Virginia University’s graduate mathematics program. She was one of three black scholars chosen to be a part of the school’s first integrated batch, and was the only woman among them.
Johnson’s life changed in 1952, when she was hired as a “computer” for the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She started work there in the summer of 1953 under a fellow West Virginian, Dorothy Vaughan, who soon promoted her to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division.
Despite long-standing racial and gender barriers, Johnson was very assertive at NACA, and constantly strove for excellence in her work. When she first arrived, work, dining, and restroom areas were segregated. It was also only customary for men to attend meetings. She recounted her defiance of this standard in a 2011 interview: “I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go,’ and I said, ‘Well, is there a law?’ They said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’” Johnson also became the first woman in NACA’s Flight Research Division to be credited as an author on a research report. By the end of her tenure, she had co-authored a total of 26 scientific papers.
Johnson’s work soon got caught up in the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, dubbed Sputnik, into orbit. The year after, NACA officially became NASA. While calculating the parabolic trajectory for NASA’s 1961 Mercury mission, she commented, “You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.” NASA astronauts depended on the accuracy of Johnson’s calculations for their safety, and soon developed strong confidence in her ability to guarantee that they would complete their mission and land back on Earth safely. This was demonstrated during John Glenn’s landmark Friendship 7 mission in 1962. NASA had begun using IBM computers to help solve the complicated math behind the endeavor, but some astronauts were not willing to entrust the new technology with their lives. Before he took off, Glenn personally requested that Johnson double-check all the calculations by hand, declaring, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn and other astronauts at NASA did not write off Johnson’s competence on grounds of her race or gender. In fact, as the Space Race continued, her mathematical ability was so trusted that her computations were used to measure the reliability of NASA’s digital computers.
In 1986, Johnson retired after more than three decades at NASA. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. President Obama lauded her saying, “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars.” In 2016, the invaluable contributions of Johnson and her colleagues, including Vaughan, to both NASA and the battle against discrimination were portrayed in a book and a film, both titled Hidden Figures.
On February 24, 2020, Johnson passed away at the age of 101. Her legacy carries on through the role she played in tearing down walls of racism and sexism in the field of mathematics and inspiring countless others to rise up and defy injustice, while persevering in the pursuit of excellence.