This week, we’re celebrating the life and work of one of the most important women in modern science.
Before she helped send the first astronauts to the moon, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and became the subject of an award-winning film, Katherine Johnson was an anonymous “female computer” doing thankless, but vital, work at NASA. Her accomplishments have since been recognized, and today she’s regarded as one of the pioneers of the space age.
Johnson’s gift for numbers allowed her to accelerate through her education. She was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, and enrolled directly into the second grade when she reached school age. By age 10 she was ready for high school.
Like many women of her time she became a teacher — but her sights were set on becoming a research mathematician. Two weeks after starting her dream job as a research mathematician at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), she transferred to the facility’s Flight Research Division.
She worked there for years until the Soviet satellite Sputnik kicked off the space race between the US and the USSR, spurring the transformation of NACA into America’s space agency, NASA.
She pushed her way into briefings traditionally attended only by men and secured a place in the inner circle of the American Space Program.
She worked on trajectories for Shepard’s Mercury flight, America’s first manned spaceflight, and earned a measure of fame as “the girl” who double-checked the output for John Glenn’s spaceflight. It was difficult to earn the respect of male peers at NASA, especially for African-American women, but Johnson’s brilliance stood out.
Her work helped map the moon’s surface ahead of the 1969 landing and played a role in the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. She retired in 1986, according to NASA, and in 2015, she was awarded the National Medal of Freedom.
Katherine Johnson’s work was a key factor in the infamous Space Race: the space travel competition between the US and Russia. It goes to show that John Glenn, the first man who went into orbit, trusted her math work over any computer, even asking her to recheck the computer’s mathematics the day before his flight. The takeoff, duration, and landing of the flight went off without a hitch.
Fun Fact: Katherine Johnson is played by Taraji P. Henson in the award-winning movie Hidden Figures. Go check it out! It’s a great film!