Pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson lived to be 101. The groundbreaking space race heroine died on February 24th, 2020. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared a tribute to Johnson on social media at the time, calling her "an American hero" whose legacy would be remembered long after her death.
Johnson shaped the future of humanity, both on Earth and in space. In honor of her incredible life, we're looking back at her astounding achievements with these ten extraordinary facts about Katherine Johnson.
Underrated American icon Katherine Johnson — also known as Katherine Goble Johnson or Katherine G. Johnson—spent 33 years working at NASA, during which she not only paved the way for women of color working in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) but also blazed humanity a trail to the stars.
Five 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, as well as recognized through presidential accolades.
Her work is celebrated in Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 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. The film went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards.
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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 fact, in contrast to today's male-dominated tech world, math and computing were seen at the time as women's work.
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 born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the daughter of a teacher and a lumberman. Johnson would later credit her precocious fascination with numbers to her father.
Johnson was a prodigy, to say the least. She graduated from high school at just 14. Afterwards, Johnson intended to study French and English at West Virginia State. But her professor W.W. Schiefflin Claytor—a trailblazing Black mathematician in his own right—encouraged her to explore her talent for STEM instead. Johnson would later say that, "In the back of my mind, I wanted to be a research mathematician." Her professor's encouragement was what she needed to take the plunge.
In 1939, Dr. John W. Davis handpicked Johnson and two other Black students (both men) for spots in the newly-integrated West Virginia University. She was the first Black female student to attend. Johnson enrolled as a graduate math student, but left school before completing her degree in order to start a family. Nearly fifteen years later, Johnson 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 for $100 a month and raising her children. 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, a policy that was initially motivated by a labor shortage stemming from World War II. The pay was much better than her teaching salary, so Johnson immediately applied and was offered a position.
When she first joined NACA, the computers were segregated, and only about a third of the women were Black. Johnson 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.
In a NASA oral history, Johnson would later recount that she managed racist incidents at NASA by trying to ignore her coworkers' prejudice: “I don’t wear my feelings on my shoulder. So I got along fine.” At the same time, Johnson wasn't afraid to be assertive. In the same oral history, she recounted the challenge she issued when told she couldn't attend a meeting along with her male colleagues: "“Is there a law that says I can’t go?"
After speaking up, Johnson was permitted to attend.
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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 outlined her findings in a report she co-authored with engineer Ted Skopinski, titled "Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position."
The paper marked the first time a woman wrote a report for the department. Johnson would later say that her supervisor at the time, Henry Pearson, was dismayed to have a female author on the report. However, when Skopinski left for Houston while writing the report, Pearson had no choice but to accept Johnson as co-author.
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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 literally wrote the book on rocket science
Johnson accomplished many more incredible things during her time at NASA. She was part of the team that worked on the Earth Resources Satellite, and later she even contributed to plans for a mission to Mars. She also helped foster the education of the generation of STEM workers that followed her.
Johnson’s prolific genius propelled her to author a whopping twenty-eight scientific papers before she retired from NASA in 1986. Not only that, but while she was at Langley Research Center’s Flight Dynamics Branch she actually co-authored one of the very first academic texts about space. Her brilliance echoes through more mathematical and scientific discoveries than we know.
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.
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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.
NASA named a research center after her
In mid-2016, a new 40,000 square foot building at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was officially named The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. The formal dedication took place on the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s rocket launch, which Johnson of course helped to achieve.
In attendance at the ceremony were Johnson’s human computer peers, as well as students from Black Girls Code and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. During the ceremony Johnson received the Silver Snoopy award—also known as the astronaut’s award—which NASA bestows upon those who have contributed in outstanding ways to the safety of space missions.
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While Johnson was initially surprised when she heard the news that a NASA building would display her name—she said the dedicators were, in her honest opinion, “crazy”—others felt it was an obvious choice.
At the ceremony, Langley Director David Bowles said, “We’re here to honor the legacy of one of the most admired and inspirational people ever associated with NASA. I can’t imagine a better tribute to Ms. Johnson’s character and accomplishments than this building that will bear her name.”
The doors of the research center officially opened on September 22nd, 2017. Additionally, on February 22nd, 2019, NASA’s Independent Verification & Validation Program located in Fairmont, West Virginia was renamed the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
She was honored in Barbie form
In 2016, science writer Maia Weinstock submitted the wonderful idea for a Women of Nasa set to LEGO Ideas. Due to the popularity of Weinstock’s idea, LEGO pushed forward to get the set into production for consumers.
The initial prototype edition included such phenomenal women as Sally Ride, Margaret Hamilton, Mae Jemison, Nancy Grace Roman, and our esteemed Katherine Johnson. However, Johnson did not allow her likeness to be made into the figure, and LEGO had to proceed without her in the lineup.
However, on International Women’s Day in 2018, Mattel released 17 new Barbie dolls. 14 of those dolls were their new “Shero” line—modern role models for young girls—while the other 3 were a part of their new “Inspiring Women” line—dolls that were based off of historical women. Alongside Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart, Katherine Johnson finally made her children’s toy debut.
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A documentary about her premiered in 2019
If you watched and loved Hidden Figures, but still hoped for a Katherine Johnson movie that was less fictionalized, then you’re in luck. On November 1st, PBS released the documentary Outlier: The Story of Katherine Johnson. While the 2016 film focused on the human computer team contributing to NASA’s space program, this hour-long documentary zooms in on the life of Katherine Johnson.
The documentary—produced by Motion Masters and originally released only for West Virginia Public Broadcasting—follows Johnson from her early days and her first interest in math. Not only does this film give Johnson the recognition that she deserves, it also gives her a voice through an interview with the woman herself.
She’s depicted in the documentary saying, “I liked to count. I counted everything—if I was going to church I counted the steps to church… And I counted them every time as if they might change.”
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Katherine Johnson will continue to inspire future generations, even after her death
Katherine Johnson passed away February 24th, 2020 at 101 years old. At the time of her death, she lived with her second husband, Lieutenant Colonel James A. Johnson, in a retirement home in Newport News, Virginia.
She had three daughters by her late first husband James Goble, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. It is said that she encouraged each and every one of them to be involved in a career in science and technology.
Following the news of Johnson's death on February 24th, 2020, NASA's Jim Bridenstine shared the agency's commitment to honoring the late mathematician's memory: "We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential."
As Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly told The Associated Press, Johnson died just days after the 58th anniversary of John Glenn's Friendship 7 flight: "We get to mourn her and also commemorate the work that she did that she’s most known for at the same time."
In mourning Johnson, America also has an opportunity to consider why the late mathematician labored in obscurity for so long — and how many other Black women have yet to be recognized for their achievements.
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 continued 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!
Featured photo of Johnson with a globe via NASA.
[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; The Washington Post; Whitehouse.gov; NASA; Katherine Johnson: America's First Space Flight]