by Natalie Lien Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman, was one of the most monumental and memorable NASA mathematicians ever. The depiction of her experiences while at NASA in the 2017 film Hidden Figures, which won three Academy Awards, gave her the fame she has today. She died on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101. Her mastermind thinking helped her gain a behind-the-scenes job at NASA when it was still segregated.
Staff at NASA were devastated when they found out about her death. She played a key role in sending people to the moon. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted, “Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old.” In 2005, when Johnson received a presidential medal, NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden stated, “She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country.”
Johnson had worked for 33 years in the space agency. She helped with Apollo and Mercury missions and the first moon landing during a time when it was unheard of for a woman, let alone an African-American woman, to do such an important job. Johnson and her coworkers were considered “computers.” They weren’t very well known, until the film Hidden Figures was released. Bill Trott, staff writer for Reuters, wrote, “Johnson attended the 2017 Oscars ceremony, joining the film’s cast in presenting an award for documentaries, and was given a standing ovation.”
Johnson lived in an area where blacks were limited because of segregation: West Virginia. Johnson’s genius math skills got her into West Virginia State College at the age of 15. She earned degrees in math and French while she zipped through school math programs. She became one of the first black scholars to graduate West Virginia State College in 1938.
Johnson taught school for seven years before working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She did this in Hampton, in the year 1953, with a handful of other black women.
In 1961, Johnson started working at a place largely dominated by white males. This is where she received the job of being a part of the team helping the 1961 mission that would fly the first American to space: Alan Shepard. NASA knew how to get an astronaut into space and on a spaceship, but they didn’t know how to land the spaceship. To land the spaceship safely, she needed to calculate where the spaceship started, how fast it was going, and where it would land. With Johnson’s help, Alan Shepard landed safely into the Atlantic Ocean.
As you can see, Katherine Johnson was a very important individual. She even received the award of, America’s Highest Civilian Honor in 2005. West Virginia University also dedicated a scholarship name and a bronze statue on campus due to her wonderful achievements. On her 100th birthday, there was a ribbon cutting ceremony to commemorate her accomplishments. Katherine Johnson was one of the main figures in history and she’ll always be remembered.
Photo credit: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/2/24/21150765/katherine-johnson-death-nasa-legacy-math-hidden-figures