Katherine Johnson, Is there anything she can’t do with numbers?

John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin...the list of heroes from the American side of the Space Race is endless and very familiar to us. Less known are the thousands of women who worked behind the scenes to make sure that these men went into space, and more importantly, got home safe. In celebration of her 99th birthday, DiscovHER brings you the story of one of these geniuses, Katherine Johnson, who beat the sexism and racism of her day to earn her place in history.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918, in West Virginia, the youngest of four children. Her talent for numbers showed quite early, with Katherine being able to finish her math homework faster than her older siblings, and even helping them with their own advanced problems. Her parents were extremely committed to their children’s academic advancement, and upon noticing her gift, moved the family to a neighboring county during the school year so they could all attend high school, since their home county, Greenbrier, did not provide public high school education for African-Americans.

Katherine graduated high school at age 14 and was admitted to West Virginia State College (now University), a historically black college, where she took every math class that was available. There, she made quite an impression on her professors who all took her under their wing, and even added new math classes for her! In 1937, at the age of 18, she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and French.

Despite her brilliance, she could not escape the reality of living in the South US in the 1950s, and dealing with the double yoke of sexism and Jim Crow, which limited the opportunities she could access. It wasn’t until 1952 that she joined NASA’s predecessor NACA as a “computer” whose main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. In 1958, Katherine was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley's Flight Research Division, which was staffed by white male engineers, in what was supposed to be a temporary posting. However, her innovative and accurate calculations led her to stay on as an aerospace technologist, a position through which she worked on many famous space missions such as the 1961 Mercury mission, John Glenn’s orbit, the Apollo 11 & 13 moon missions, and, later in her career, the space shuttle programs. Her renown was such that, when NASA calculated John Glen’s trajectory using a computer, he specifically requested that Katherine recalculate it herself, and only if she came up with the same figures would he feel comfortable going on the mission.

Katherine retired in 1986 from an eventful and highly accomplished career. She has been a role model for many upcoming astronauts and women in general, and has been recognized in various ways. In late 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and cited her as a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM. At NASA, a new building was named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the agency's Langley Research Center in 2016. In the same year, her life and work were immortalized in the film Hidden Figures, which also told the story of her fellow female African-American NASA pioneers, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

One year shy of a century old, Katherine Johnson has been an inspiration for half of her life, and will continue to be for at least another 100 years!

In awe of this Hidden Figure? Find out more about her work here and let us know how she inspires you @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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