Picture credit: National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA)
In honor of United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science today (and Black History Month), I am featuring an incredible woman named Katherine Johnson. She was an African American mathematician who worked for NASA and died just last year.
Johnson was a gifted student who graduated from the historically black West Virginia State College in 1937 during the time of segregation. She went on to become a teacher at a local black public school in Virginia. In 1939, Dr. John W. Davis picked her and two other men to be the first black graduate students at West Virginia University. Johnson left graduate school early to marry James Goble and started a family. They had three daughters together.
In 1952, Johnson and her husband moved to Virginia so she could take a job at the Langley laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Soon after, she began working on analyzing flight test data and investigating plane crashes. This was in the Cold War period when Americans and Russians were in a “space race.” Johnson worked on the math for space engineering at NACA, which later became what we now know as NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
Johnson wrote research studies and reports on flight trajectories and did the math to program flight missions. In 1962, Johnson helped NASA prepare for John Glenn for his mission in 1962. In order for this flight to take place, it required the building of a communications network which linked tracking stations around the world to computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral (Florida), and Bermuda. Those computers contained the equations that would manage the capsule that Glenn would be flying in, Glenn’s Friendship Mission 7. The flight was a major success and shifted the tide in the race to space between America and Russia. This was what ultimately Johnson was most well-known for, and after this, she continued to work for the Langley laboratory at NASA.
After working for NASA for 33 years, Johnson finally retired in 1986. In 2015, Johnson received America’s highest civilian award and honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by former President Barack Obama. Two years after receiving this award, Katherine Johnson died on February 24, 2020 at age 101 years old.
I chose Katherine Johnson because I am a girl who likes math. Although I do not face the same odds as Johnson did, becoming a mathematician (a NASA mathematician no less) as a female will still be an impressive feat and something I can only dream of.