Underrated American icon Katherine Johnson spent 33 years working at NASA, during which she not only blazed a trail for women of color working in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) but also blazed humanity a trail to the stars. Let's look at five extraordinary facts about Katherine Johnson.
A few years ago, it seemed as though the world barely remembered Johnson's accomplishments as one of the Black women who worked as a 'human computer' at NASA beginning in the 1950s. In recent years, though, Johnson’s role in history has been documented in books and on the big screen. Her work is celebrated in Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book Hidden Figures, which recounts how Black women mathematicians helped NASA win the space race, and the racism and sexism they faced along the way. Shetterly's book was also adapted into a critically acclaimed 2016 movie starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, and Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as her colleagues Dorothy K. Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively.
In the '40s, '50s, and '60s, NASA hired women to do the complex mathematical work that computers do today. Women were thought to be detail-oriented and accurate, thus well-suited to the job. In Johnson's role at NASA, people trusted her with their lives—John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, said of Johnson: “Call her, and if she says the computer’s right, I’ll take it.” He wanted her to double-check the computer’s calculations on the reentry of his spacecraft Friendship 7, because he preferred to rely on her instead of a machine.
Johnson was invaluable to the space program, at a time when segregation restricted the kinds of jobs available to African Americans. “There were jobs, and there were good black jobs,” says Margot Lee Shetterly in Hidden Figures. Through her work with the space program, Johnson was a pioneer for all women, but especially for Black women.
She was a freshman in high school at the age of 10, and graduated from college at just 18.
Johnson was a prodigy, to say the least. In 1939, the president of West Virginia State, Dr. John W. Davis, handpicked Johnson and two other Black students (both men) for spots in the university. She was the first Black female student to attend West Virginia State. Johnson enrolled as a graduate math student, but left school before completing her degree in order to start a family. Nearly fifteen years later, she started working for NASA.
One of Johnson’s first NASA assignments was to look at the black box data from crashed airplanes.
In 1953, Johnson was working as a teacher and raising her children when she learned at a family gathering that NASA, then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), had begun hiring Black women to work as human computers. The pay was much better than her teaching salary, so she immediately applied and was offered a position. When she first joined NACA, the computers were segregated—she and her Black peers used separate restrooms in the Virginia lab where they made their calculations, and sat apart from the white computers at lunch. The human computers would not be desegregated until later in the '50s.
Soon after beginning work with the NACA, Johnson was assigned to the Flight Research Division. In one of her first projects, she had to get to the bottom of why a small propellor plane, which had been functioning perfectly normally, fell out of the sky without any warning. Johnson spent days peering through a film reader at the footage recorded by the plane’s black box, analyzing and plotting the data within for the engineers. It was her careful work that allowed engineers to discover that the flight path of a larger plane can disturb the air around it for up to a half hour after it passes through, acting as a sort of “trip wire” for a smaller plane.
She Worked Backwards to Make Project Mercury a Success
In 1958, NASA's Project Mercury was officially approved, with the goal to put a man in orbit around the Earth. In her role on NASA's Space Task Group, Johnson calculated astronaut Alan Shepard's trajectory. Johnson said of the calculations, “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." It was simple geometry, Johnson claimed, because the first suborbital flights of the Mercury years were parabolas. She only had to take into account the rotation of the Earth, which is why working backwards from the landing site was easier than working forwards.
Johnson worked on the calculations that allowed the Apollo astronauts to return home from the Moon.
It wasn’t just the Mercury program that Johnson worked on. During the Apollo years, she helped calculate exactly how the lunar lander on the Moon’s surface (which was rotating on its own axis as well as rotating around the Earth), could rendezvous and dock with the Apollo command and service module, in orbit around the Moon. “Everybody was concerned about them getting there; we were concerned about them getting back,” said Johnson. That’s a lot of math, and it’s thanks to her impeccable work that the process was successful.
She Was Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015
Although Johnson didn't become a household name until the release of Hidden Figures, her work didn't go totally unrecognized prior to the book and movie. During her decades at NASA, she was awarded the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards, among others. In 1997, she was given an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the State University of New York, but wasn't notified until the ceremony that she was also the event's keynote speaker. But not surprisingly, Johnson rose to the occasion and delivered an extemporaneous talk that NASA says inspired at least one attendee to return to school.
In 2015, Johnson received her most prestigious award yet. “Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history—even if they weren’t always given a voice,” said President Barack Obama in September 2015. Two months later, he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest honor for civilians, to Johnson.
“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,” President Obama stated at the medal ceremony.
Without the contributions of Johnson and her fellow human computers, without their exceptional minds and willingness to fight for equal treatment, without their ability to swallow the small daily humiliations that came with being Black women in the 1950s, '60s, and beyond in order to work for the greater good of our country, our nation might look very different. Johnson made invaluable contributions to our history, and deserves our recognition and respect. And even after her retirement, she continues to advocate for greater STEM literacy, and to inspire in everyone a love for math and physics. In her own words, “We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”
Want to learn more about Johnson and her fellow human computers? Download Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures!
[Via Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly; Whitehouse.gov; Whitehouse.gov; NASA; NASA; Katherine Johnson: America's First Space Flight]
Featured photo of Johnson with a globe via NASA