Get To Know May’s Patron Saint Of Feminism, NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Most of us know the name Katherine Johnson by now, thanks almost entirely to the remarkable film made about her life and the lives of other black women computing for NASA, “Hidden Figures.”Johnson led a fascinating life before even starting her tenure at NASA, and it’s time she get all due credit for her contributions to the advancement of the American space race.

Born in West Virginia in 1918, it was clear from the jump that Katherine Coleman was a special child. She loved everything about learning, especially mathematics, and proved to be a gifted student, starting high school at just 10 years old. She followed that up by heading to college at the tender age of 15, and graduating at 18, when the rest of us plebs usually START college.

Johnson used her education to go into teaching, which she did until she married and had children. She went to go back into teaching when her husband fell ill and was unable to work, until his inoperable brain tumor eventually killed him. At a family gathering, someone told Johnson that NASA (then it was called ‘NACA’) was hiring black female mathematicians. Johnson applied and was hired as a “computer.”

Eventually, Katherine was recruited to work in Guidance and Control of the Flight Research Division. There she helped to successfully navigate NASA to almost exactly where Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury would land, based on her supremely accurate coordinates. She also helped to return the Apollo 13 crew to Earth after their failed mission to the moon. Oh, and, she totally worked her mathy magic to put Americans on the moon. Yeah. She did that.

Later in her career, she focused her unfathomably brilliant mind on the Earth Resources Satellite, the Space Shuttle Program, and even worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

Not only was she brilliant, she was fierce. She insisted that she be included in briefings in which a bunch of white dudes would discuss HER work and calculations. She never wanted to be given anything, except for the respect and inclusion she was due. And by God, she got it. Eventually, the sausage fest at NASA realized that Katherine was quite possibly one of the smartest people alive, and it was high time they treated her as such.

Over her career, Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers, and received a slew of special awards and recognition, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but she means so much more than that to our movement. It’s a travesty that so few of us knew who this astonishing woman was before the exquisite Taraji P. Henson played her in a movie. Katherine Johnson’s brilliance, perseverance, grace, and courage should be celebrated– more importantly, though, it should be TAUGHT. 

Johnson is just one of innumerable black women whose stories have been deleted by our failure to preserve them. Johnson’s story has been shared, at least partially, but whose stories still remain untold? We must do a better job of sharing the spotlight of history with those who actually deserve it.

We’d like to personally thank Katherine Johnson for using her brilliance for good, and for paving the way for women who work. Her courage in the face of oppression and erasure gives us all strength to carry on the fight.

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