How many of you are familiar with the pioneering mathematician Katherine Johnson? Most of you might recognize her from the film “Hidden Figures,” but are you aware of the incredible accomplishments made by this trailblazing space race heroine? Johnson influenced humankind’s destiny on Earth and in space, so let’s look at her incredible life and astounding achievements today.1
Who is Katherine Johnson?
African American mathematician Katherine Johnson specialized in space exploration throughout her professional life. Despite facing racial prejudice and inequity throughout her career, she has accomplished a great deal. She is one of the underappreciated American icons who worked for NASA for 33 years, blazing the path for other women of color in STEM fields and helping humanity reach the stars.1,2
During the space race, Katherine Johnson contributed significantly to several NASA missions, probably most notably by planning the Apollo 11 mission’s necessary trajectory to reach the moon and return. Johnson is now regarded as one of the space era’s forerunners due to her achievements having since been acknowledged. Though this was not always the case— as a Black woman who was a human computer at NASA before, Johnson’s contributions were almost forgotten.3 Since then, much of it has changed, and Johnson’s historical significance has been recognized in literature, on screen, and even with presidential honors.3,4
Katherine Johnson Facts
- Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia, in 1918. It was evident from a young age that she had a genuine talent for math, which led to her moving up several grades in school.1,5
- Johnson and two other male students from West Virginia State University in 1939 were the first Black graduate students.1
- In 1952, Johnson worked for NASA in the all-black west area computing section, where she tackled some exceedingly difficult mathematical problems that played an essential role in assisting astronauts with their space missions.1,4
- In 1962, Katherine Johnson completed the work for which she would become most known. She contributed to the development of a global communications network, contributing to the preparation for John Glenn’s space flight. Johnson’s equations made the mission safer and more efficient.4
- Johnson spoke to students about her fantastic career for the years that followed her time working for NASA, inspiring them to pursue STEM fields of study.6
- Barack Obama, the former president, awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 in recognition of her contribution and commitment to the advancement of the United States as a country.1
- In addition, Katherine Johnson was awarded a Silver Snoopy Award, a special honor given to NASA individuals who have made remarkable contributions to flight safety and success.7
- NASA has named a research center after her to recognize all of her accomplishments. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was officially named in 2016 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.7
The world might look very different if it weren’t for Johnson and her fellow human computers’ contributions. Thanks to their exceptional minds and willingness to fight for fair opportunities, and to overcome the struggles that came with being women of color during the 1950s and ’60s, Katherine Johnson and her fellow NASA mathematicians were able to advance the interests of all humanity through their work. Her significant contributions deserve our appreciation, as even after retiring, she continued to support increased STEM literacy and encourage a love of math and physics.6
If this article about Katherine Johnson has inspired you, and you want to learn about other fantastic stories that are encouraging, read Unsung Women Heroes Whose Contributions Changed the Tech World! African American Computer Science Pioneers, Margaret Hamilton, Grace Murray Hopper, and Ada Lovelace.
You can also visit BYJU’S FutureSchool Blog to read more inspiring articles on coding and math.
- Katherine Johnson | Biography, Education, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Katherine-Johnson-mathematician
- Katherine Johnson’s STEM Contributions Marked on her 103rd Birthday | NASA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/katherine-johnson-s-stem-contributions-marked-on-her-103rd-birthday
- Katherine Johnson Facts | Mental Floss. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/555114/facts-about-katherine-johnson-nasa
- Katherine Johnson Biography | NASA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography
- Who Was Katherine Johnson? | NASA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-katherine-johnson-k4
- Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM | NASA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/a-lifetime-of-stem.html
- Computer Facility Named After “Human Computer” Katherine Johnson | NASA. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/computational-facility-named-in-tribute-to-nasa-langley-math-master-katherine-johnson