Katherine Johnson, born Creola Katherine Coleman in 1918, was one of the first African-American women to work as a scientist for NASA. During an era rife with racial and gendered segregation, Johnson’s work helped to realise the first American spaceflights and missions to the moon. She was a pioneer from a young age: despite only starting school at the age of ten, she received her degree in mathematics and French with distinction at 18 years old, and was later one of three African-American students and the first African-American woman selected to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. Despite the societal barriers that she knew were in her path, she was set on becoming a research mathematician. In 1953, she found a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became part of NASA.
Before computers as we know them were commercially available, people worked under the title of “computer”, performing mathematical calculations. In the 1900s, computing was generally considered to be “women’s work” and seen as inferior to the “men’s work” of engineering. It should be noted that historically, the work of women in computing has gone notoriously under-acknowledged despite their many laudable contributions, which include computing the return of Halley’s Comet in the 1700s to helping to invent some of the early language-based programming languages. At NASA, Johnson worked as a computer from 1953 to 1958, and was the first woman to have her name allowed on a report for her division there. When NASA’s first orbit of the earth took place in 1962 using electronic computers, it was Johnson who verified the machine’s calculations at the request of the astronaut John Glenn. Glenn reportedly refused to fly unless Johnson herself assured him of their accuracy. From 1958 until 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, working on projects such as calculating the trajectory of the flight of the first American in space, and later on plans for a Mars mission.
Johnson also co-authored 26 scientific papers and was the winner of the NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement award five times during her career. Yet, despite her 35 years at NASA, most of the acknowledgement of Johnson’s work came much later in her life and after her retirement. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the College of William and Mary in 2018. Perhaps most famously, she was portrayed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly), which highlights the lives of the African-American women mathematicians – focusing on Johnson and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson – who had previously gone largely unacknowledged for their role in making the first American spaceflights possible.
Johnson passed away on the 24th of February this year, at the age of 101. However, her legacy lives on. We can see it in action through the testimonies by today’s NASA astronauts and scientists on how Johnson’s story inspired them to pursue their careers:
A core part of her dream was always to inspire young people to take an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and we can help to achieve this by celebrating her life and accomplishments.