The 1950s and 60s were a turbulent time that saw everything from the space race to the civil rights movement, two separate events that were brought together in Katherine Johnson. As a NASA employee and an African American woman, she worked with groundbreaking math and labored to break down the barriers faced by black women of the time. The segregated society did not make life easy for Johnson, but she still fought to change space travel and find success.
Born to the Coleman family in 1918, Johnson showed fantastic mathematical abilities from a young age. She enrolled in a private high school in Virginia when she was only ten years old, and she earned her diploma when she was 14. Then, Johnson attended a historically black college, West Virginia State, to study math and French. Here, she took every mathematics course offered at the university. One of her professors even added new math classes just for her, and at age 18, Johnson graduated summa cum laude with two degrees.
Eventually, Johnson decided to become a research mathematician, and even though it was a career that greatly discriminated against women and African Americans, she was not discouraged. She found a job at NACA, which would soon become NASA, where she acted as a “computer”. Johnson would calculate and confirm important values for the space aircraft and travel. In 1958, however, Johnson left this to work in the Guidance and Control Division. This section of NASA was staffed by white male engineers, so Johnson hardly ever received any respect. Still, she calculated the trajectory and launch window for Alan Shepherd’s flight into space, and Shepherd would not allow take off until Johnson herself had confirmed all the numbers. This and her work with the Apollo 11 moon landing are what Johnson is known for most.
Although Johnson’s work was crucial for the success of many space missions, she faced great discrimination. For her beginning years at NASA, Johnson could not put her name on any reports because she was a woman. Johnson once said that women had to be “assertive and aggressive” at that time to get the recognition they deserved. Also, as a person of color, she and her fellow African American workers had use separate bathrooms and lunchrooms. Even in the face of blatant segregation, Johnson continued to fight to advance her career and status in society.
Katherine Johnson is an inspiration to people everywhere for accomplishing what she did in the face of great adversity. Further, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2015, and she was highlighted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Johnson is fully deserving of these honors and more because she never submitted to the limits put on her by society. She was always willing to reach for the stars.