Katherine Johnson is a true pioneer, whose genius helped launch NASA missions to explore space.
Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. At this time, the county did not provide education for African-American children beyond 14 years old, and so at age 10, Johnson’s parents sent her to a different part of the state for high school.
By the time she was 14, Johnson had graduated high school and begun attending West Virginia State College. By 18, she had graduated with degrees in Maths and French. Johnson went on to become one of the first African-American students enrolled on the graduate programme at West Virginia University, after a supreme court ruling forced the college to desegregate.
However, Johnson quit the graduate programme after a year, having become pregnant with her first child. She decided to become a research mathematician, and 1953 she was offered a position with the organisation that would later become known as NASA.
Here, she worked as a ‘computer’, reading data and making mathematical calculations. At this time, much of America was still racially segregated by law, and so Johnson and other people of colour were forced to work and eat separately from white colleagues.
In 1958, Johnson began working for NASA as an aerospace technologist, a field she would remain in for the next 30 years. Here, she calculated the flight trajectories and launch windows for many spaceflights. Johnson worked on the planned trajectory for Project Mercury: the successful mission to send the first American man into space.
Johnson’s extraordinary mathematical abilities also contributed to the 1969 moon landing, and helped ensure the safe return of stranded astronauts on the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970. She went on to work on the Space Shuttle programme and on plans for a mission to Mars.
In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. And in 2016, her legacy was lauded in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. Johnson’s genius, her achievements and her extraordinary drive in succeeding as an African-American women in a traditionally white, male dominated industry, make her one of STEM’s greatest heroes.
Last updated: 21 February 2018