Katherine Johnson’s Remarkable Life
As this year’s celebration of Black History Month comes to a close, it’s only fitting we at History Imagined commemorate the life of a true member of Black History. Katherine Johnson died this week, at age 101, after bursting through every glass ceiling put in her path. Her contributions to NASA and the race to space were documented in the movie, Hidden Figures. In a memorandum from NASA, they noted it was, “her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers.”
Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulfer Springs, WV. Her father was impressed by her intelligence early on and was determined to give her the best education possible, relocating his family to give her a place to attend high school in an effort to help her succeed. And succeed she did. She skipped through grades, graduating high school at age 14 and at 18, she graduated with honors from West Virginia State College in 1937. She went on from there to attend graduate school as a math major, being one of only three hand-picked black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. Following her study and subsequent higher degree, she became a public school teacher for a number of years, during which time she married and began her family, giving birth to three daughters.
In 1953, she was hired by NASA to work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, VA, now known as the Langley Research Center. They were among the first to hire women for the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating wind tunnel results, beginning the practice as early as 1935, when they referred to these women as “computers.” During WWII, they expanded the practice to include women of color. They were so pleased with the work of these ladies, they kept women in the work force after the war ended. By 1953, early exploration into space had begun and Kathrine Johnson found a home for her extraordinary math skills.
This early champion of STEM education was regarded by NASA as “A computer when computers wore skirts.” She aided in the nation’s quest to put a human in orbit around the earth. She was intensely curious and brilliant with numbers. She figured out the trajectory analysis for America’s first space flight in 1961 and was also lauded as the first female in the Flight Research Division of NASA to get credit for having been the author of a research report a year prior to her work in 1961. In 1962, she verified the numbers spit out by an early IBM computer as they related to the trajectory of John Glenn’s orbital mission. He relied on her analysis over the computer, saying “If Katherine says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Her skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon and before that, made it possible for astronauts to take their first steps in space. Her pioneering effort, as well as the other black female aerospace workers at the time helped break down the racial and social barriers that had made success almost unheard of before then. Before retiring in 1986, Johnson coauthored 26 research reports, and worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite program.
Johnson received our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2015. NASA dedicated their Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, WV, and renamed the building in her honor in 2019.
Taraji P. Henson played Johnson’s character in the movie Hidden Figures. Upon hearing of her passing, Henson wrote on her Instagram account “Because of your hard work little girls EVERYWHERE can dream as big as the MOON!!! Your legacy will live on FOREVER AND EVER!!! You ran so we could fly!!! I will forever be honored to have been a part of bringing your story to life. You/your story was hidden thank GOD you are #hiddennomore. God bless your beautiful family. I am so honored to have sat and broke bread with you all.”
As NASA says, “Not bad, for a little girl from West Virginia, who coincidentally (or maybe not) was born on August 26: Women’s Equality Day.”
Becky Lower was never good at math. Struggling through high school algebra about killed her, but made her acutely aware of, and respectful of, anyone who could make sense of it all. Katherine Johnson’s achievements went way beyond her math skills. She made every little girl out there, black, white, or somewhere in between, realize that being smart is a good thing, and to dream big. As big as space. And beyond.