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Remembering Katherine Johnson: NASA Mathematician Calculated Mission Flight Paths and Continues to Inspire

Posted on Tue, February 25, 2020
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On February 24, 2020, Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101, after a long life of learning and teaching—and quietly helping the United States reach our destiny in space. As a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for some of NASA’s most important missions, her contribution to history cannot be overstated, though it was overlooked for decades.

As recently as five years ago, Katherine’s story—and the stories of dozens of women like her—was largely unseen in history books and in museums like ours. That changed in 2015 when she received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, and in 2016 with the release of the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and the film Hidden Figures, which became a cultural touchstone. Katherine Johnson’s story ignited the imagination of a generation who saw, many for the first time, someone who looked like them reflected in the earliest days of the Space Race.

The story in Hidden Figures picked up with Katherine already at NASA, working against prejudices and obstacles as both a woman and an African American in a time when our society was still sharply segregated. But Katherine was extraordinary well before she began calculating orbital paths. Born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, she was fascinated by numbers from a very young age, and by the time she was ten (ten!), Katherine was already a freshman in high school. Consider that this was in the era of Jim Crow, when most schools for African Americans ended at 8th grade.

She graduated from high school at 14, and college at 18. After time as a teacher and stay-at-home mom, she went to work for the NACA—the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA—calculating results from the famous wind tunnel at Langley Research Center. Katherine excelled as a “human computer,” and the flights of the first Americans in space relied on her calculations. Even when NASA turned to electronic computers to tabulate trajectories, John Glenn now-famously asked that Katherine personally recheck the calculations on his flight before climbing aboard Friendship 7.

Katherine, and countless unsung heroes just like her, carried the nation’s space program forward, despite pervasive opposition at all levels of society. Katherine went where her skills were needed—even if she wasn’t invited. To borrow a phrase from Shirley Chisolm (who became the first black woman elected to Congress the same year Katherine calculated the trajectories for the first Moon landing), they didn’t give her a seat at the table, so she brought a folding chair. And in that quiet tenacity, she forged a legacy that will inform and inspire generations of young women looking for their own space in history. 

Katherine Johnson was a role model for all who knew her, and is now rightly remembered as a hero of her era. But her quiet, methodical approach to her work—even and especially when it was at odds with her assigned role in society—is what speaks to generations today. As a geologist, I can tell you that some of the most powerful forces shaping the landscape are invisible, right up until the ground moves beneath your feet. In that way, Katherine was a force of nature.

Katherine Johnson changed history when no one was looking, and decades later changed the way we look at history. Our country owes her a debt of gratitude for both of those achievements, and as we reexamine the way our Museum approaches the stories of history’s hidden figures, Katherine’s legacy shows us the way.