• Chris Baker

WOMEN IN ASTRONOMY: KATHERINE JOHNSON


Katherine Johnson passed away in February this year at the age of 101, so we thought it fitting to honour her now in our series ‘Women in Astronomy’.


Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician and one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. Her calculations were critical to the success of the US in the space race and her work changed the entire future of space flights, as well as helping to open the field to other amazing women.


Born in Greenbrier County, West Virginia in 1918, she was the youngest of 4 children. From a young age, she showed she was a gifted mathematician, having completed 8th grade by the age of 10. However, as Greenbrier County didn’t offer public schooling for African-American children past this grade, she attended a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College. After graduating high school at only 14, Katherine then enrolled at that college, taking every maths course available, and being mentored by several professors. Once graduating with honours at 18, with a degree in mathematics and French, Katherine taught in a black public school in Marion, Virginia.


After marrying her first husband, James Goble, in 1939, she left her teaching job to enrol in a graduate maths programme at West Virginia University. She was the first African-American woman to attend there, after the Supreme Court ruled higher-education facilities must integrate. However, unfortunately she had to give up her place a year later when she became pregnant and wanted to focus on her family instead.


She aspired to be a research mathematician but as this was a very difficult field for African-Americans and women to enter at the time, she returned to teaching. This was until she was hired by NACA in 1953, where she worked as a computer, analysing various complex calculations. She was so successful that she was eventually reassigned to the Flight Research Division in Guidance and Control, which at the time was only staffed by white men.

Because of the workplace segregation laws in place at the time, she and the other African-American women had to eat, work and use bathrooms separate from their white colleagues. This was until 1958 when NASA took over the agency, however Katherine said this didn’t eradicate discrimination as women still weren’t allowed to put their names on reports. That was the case until one of her male colleagues convinced their supervisor to let her finish their report. This was the first time a woman from her division had her name on something. Although she said the gender and racial barriers were always there, she just ignored them. “We needed to be assertive as women in those days,” she’d stated, referring to her insistence on attending editorial meetings, where women had not been before.


From the NASA take over to her retirement in 1986, she worked as an aerospace technologist, calculating flight trajectories for many missions including that for the first American in space, in 1961. She also verified the electronic computer’s calculations for John Glenn’s orbit around Earth in 1962, after being specifically asked for by him as he refused to fly without her approval. Helping to calculate the flight trajectories and backup procedures for the Apollo missions (including Apollo 11 in 1969 when man first stepped on the moon), she saved lives by inventing a one-star observation system which helped the Apollo 13 crew determine their location after the mission was aborted.


Throughout her career, Katherine co-authored 26 scientific papers and even after retiring, spent her time encouraging students, especially young girls, to pursue the STEM subjects. At the beginning of her time at NACA, she had to raise her 3 children alone after suffering the loss of her husband in 1956. This was until, 3 years later, she married US Army officer, James A. “Jim” Johnson.


In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama – the highest civilian award in the US, where Obama said that she “refused to be limited by society's expectations of her gender and race, while expanding the boundaries of humanity's reach.” In that same year, NASA had a 40,000 square foot building named after her, where, at the opening ceremony in 2017, she was awarded the Silver Snoopy award (often called the astronaut’s award) by the agency. NASA also renamed one of their facilities to honour her in 2019.


The BBC’s ‘Top 100 Women of Influence Worldwide’ included her in 2016 and in that same year, she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as the lead character in the film Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly of the same name. Less than one year after her husband, Jim, died, Katherine also sadly passed away in February 2020 at the age of 101, having lived a remarkably full and inspirational life.


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