Katherine Johnson is an easy woman to write about. Hell, a movie about her (and a few others) accomplishments came out just a few years ago – if you didn’t know about her before that, you most likely have heard something since! The movie is Hidden Figures, and Katherine Johnson is one of the women behind some of history’s most important space launches.
Katherine Johnson was a trailblazer. She wanted to be a research mathematician, and she wouldn’t let something as meaningless as society tell her she couldn’t.
Johnson was born during a time of rampant racial and gender discrimination. Although she showed strong mathematical skills from an early age, the county she lived in didn’t offer educational opportunities for African Americans past eighth grade. Johnson’s family noticed her potential, though, and got her enrolled in a different school on the other side of the state. Her family split their time between her hometown and the new school so she could complete her studies. She graduated high school early, at age 14, and enrolled in West Virginia State, a Historically Black College.
After college, she became one of the first three African American students selected to integrate into West Virginia University’s graduate program after the Supreme Court ruled that states must make public higher education available to black students if it was open to white students.
Katherine Johnson’s goal was to work as a research mathematician. Unfortunately, that field was very limited for African Americans and women. At first, she was only able to find teaching positions. However, she got her chance in 1952 when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an equal opportunity employer, put out a hiring call for mathematicians. Johnson started with NACA in 1953.
Although her work with NACA began as one of a pool of “calculator women” (basically human calculators – they did who super precise and complicated mathematical equations!), she soon showed that she was capable of far more. She got a temporary assignment on the all-male flight team research team, and due to her exceptional abilities in geometry, she wasn’t often returned to the calculation pool. She did her best to ignore the racial and gender barriers and let her abilities speak for themselves.
Sending Shuttles Into Orbit
From 1958 through 1986 (when she retired), Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist for NASA. While there, she worked on some fantastic projects. She calculated the trajectory of the first American into space. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts to use in case of electrical or system failures. In my opinion, one of the most incredible things she did was verify that the first computer to calculate an orbit was correct. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, refused to go on the mission until Johnson verified the numbers. Talk about having a considerable influence and being respected in your field!
Katherine Johnson also worked on the first mission to the moon in 1969. She helped calculate the trajectory for that flight, ensuring that the astronauts would land and arrive back safely. Johnson also worked on the space shuttle program, satellite programs, and the earliest missions to Mars.
Why I Admire Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson is obviously a brilliant woman. I admire her just for that! Can you imagine calculating the trajectories of space orbits by hand? Or verifying that computers are correct? These are some fantastic freaking accomplishments.
But in addition to admiring her brilliance, I admire her tenacity and her ability to overcome all of the racial and gender discrimination that was rampant, legal, and expected during that time. Instead of kowtowing to it and letting it get to her, she ignored it and did what she had to do to achieve her dreams. That takes a ton of guts of passion.
Why Katherine Johnson’s Story Makes Me Sad
Alan Shepard is a household name (a high school near my hometown is even named after him!). So are John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Everyone remembers these men as the trailblazing American heroes who braved the final frontier. We learned about them in almost every grade of school. Their names are written across all history books, and they have tons of mentions in the media.
How many other amazing women were there throughout history that we haven’t learned about yet because a man was celebrated instead? Unfortunately, it happens all the time.
Is it Getting Better?
I want to say it’s getting better. The film Hidden Figures showcased the amazing accomplishments of the women behind the NASA missions and finally gave Katherine Johnson the credit that she deserved. People are starting to learn about all of the incredible women behind some of the world’s most important discoveries. And most importantly, women are allowed to enter pretty much every field. Gender discrimination is still a problem, but at least it’s illegal – I think that’s a step forward.
The next steps are to solve the systematic issues that cause gender discrimination. It starts with looking at the pay gap, but there is a lot more that needs to be done. Hopefully, women like Katherine Johnson will be normalized and celebrated during their times, in the same way, that men are. We have more work to do, but we are slowly getting there.
Read about the first woman featured in our mini-series on extraordinary women – Sue Hendrickson!