Remembering Katherine Johnson, the Woman Who Forever Changed the History of Space Travel

Katherine Johnson BELatina Latinx
Photo credit MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

At the age of 101, the mathematician who allowed the boundaries of space travel to be broken left the earth to become stardust.

Some may remember Katherine Johnson (b. White Sulfur Springs, WV, 1918; d. Newport News, VA, 2020) as a character played by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, but this woman’s story goes far beyond the big screen.

In fact, it goes beyond this Earth.

Born in segregated America, Johnson had to work twice as hard to make the most of her impressive ability in numbers, because early 20th century Greenbrier County offered no education for AfricanAmericans beyond the eighth grade.

Once admitted to a high school in West Virginia, the young genius entered college at only 15 years of age, at West Virginia State, and was trained by tutors such as Angie Turner King and W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, becoming the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown. 

Being a woman of color was a two-fold battle, but Johnson managed to make her way initially as a math professor, until in 1953 she accepted a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.

According to the National Visionary Leadership Project’s oral account, Johnson recalled how, thanks to her skills, her incorporation into the exclusive team of male scientists came naturally, and the importance of her analyses allowed her to ignore cultural barriers.

“Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, ‘they forgot to return me to the pool,'” the Project recalls. “While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.”

In 1956, after losing her husband to brain cancer, Johnson continued her work and helped write the first textbook on space. With her specialty in calculating trajectories for space launches, the mathematician achieved the correct calculation of the so-called “launch window” for NASA’s Mercury mission which, in 1961, achieved the first return of an American in space.

But it was in 1969 that her name would be inscribed forever in the history of mankind.

After starting the calculation to propel space capsules into orbit around the moon, Johnson joined the accelerated space race in search of putting the first man on the natural satellite.

It was her calculations that enabled Neil Armstrong to take that first step on the moon in July 1969, and Johnson and her team received recognition from NASA.

In subsequent years, and now an icon in her field, the mathematician worked on programs like the space shuttle and the first drafts for a mission to Mars. After more than 26 scientific papers and 33 years of service, Katherine G. Johnson retired in 1986. 

Last Monday, the space agency for which Johnson worked all her life announced her death. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called her “an American hero” whose “pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

“Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

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