It’s not only Black History Month, but also the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate I’m doing a profile of one of my favorite black women to work in science, Katherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in the small town of White Sulfur Springs, home of the lauded Greenbrier resort, in southeastern West Virginia. Johnson’s intellect was evident at a young age, and in a time when going to school at all was very difficult for African-American children, her father moved the family several hours away to Institute, WV, so she could start high school at the age of 10. Graduating by the time she was 14 Johnson attended West Virginia State University at the age of 15 and went on to earn a graduate degree in mathematics.

Johnson spent her time after college working as a teacher and even staying home to care for her children. In 1953 she signed on as a research mathematician for Langley Research Center and worked with NASA predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Johson was a “computer”, a position held primarily by women, and many of them, and involving tedious calculations. Many forget that during this era of computer and math science much of the work fell to women as supposedly menial tasks, much akin secretarial work like filing and collating. Johnson was the first computer to start asking questions about the equations they were working on, which quickly garnered her notice. She was told that women didn’t attend the briefings or meetings, and when she she ensured it wasn’t illegal to do so, she started to attend herself. “The women did what they were told to do,” Johnson explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”

Johnson was plucked from the pool of computers and assigned, temporarily at first, to the flight research team. Her position quickly became permanent. Johnson’s primary responsibilities on the flight research team was to calculate the trajectories for space flights and thus determine the optimal timing for launches. Johnson worked on the Mercury and Apollo projects, including Apollo 11 which was the mission that put men on the moon in 1969. Her calculations also helped bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely after the mission was aborted.

After the moon landings Johnson also worked on NASA projects like the Space Shuttle, Earth Resource Satellites and proposed missions to Mars and over the course of her career she co-authored 26 scientific papers. John retired from NASA in 1986 after a 33-year-long career and numerous contributions.

In a time when many blacks and women were systematically oppressed, Katherine Johnson was able to rise up and use her incredible intelligence to not only advance space travel in the US but to advance the human race. Taraji P. Henson will be playing Johnson in an upcoming biopic based on an upcoming biography, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, about Johnson and her colleagues. I’m excited for everyone to learn more about Katherine Johnson in both mediums!

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