Katherine Johnson was all of these things and more. Her contributions to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its predecessor National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) went largely unnoticed until Margot Lee Shetterly published her 2016 book Hidden Figures. The movie that followed blasted Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson into the public sphere. Of the three, Johnson was the only one alive by the time the book and movie were released. 

Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Due to her intellect, she enrolled in high school at the age of 10. Then, she started at West Virginia State College at 14 years old. She graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18 with degrees in mathematics and French. Johnson became the first black student to attend graduate school at West Virginia University. After dropping the program to focus on her family, she was hired as a human computer at NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Langley, VA. 

The West Area Computers were a group of African American women who worked to create and reverify calculations for the space program. In a time before digital computers and calculators, these human computers would make these calculations by hand. Johnson started as a computer in June 1953, when NACA was still segregated. She met Jackson, a fellow computer, and Acting Supervisor Vaughan. 

These women, among countless others, were an integral part of the space program. Jackson worked as a computer until being recruited to work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. After campaigning the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate level courses at the then-segregated Hampton High School, she became NASA’s first black female engineer. Vaughan taught herself the programming language FOURTRAN in order to make herself valuable to management when the first digital computers were installed. Upon desegregation in 1958, Johnson became an aerospace technologist and calculated numbers for many space missions, including the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight, the launch window of the 1961 Mercury mission, and famously, John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. After the installation of digital computers, in a time when they were not trusted as they are now, astronauts Shepard and Glenn called upon Johnson to confirm the computer’s output. In the beginning of the digital age, Johnson was respected and trusted more than the computer.

Being from West Virginia, Johnson has become sort of a role model of mine as a pioneer in STEM. No, she didn’t take no for an answer and fought to be represented. She gained access to meetings through persistence. Johnson was the first woman to be named as a co-author of a scientific report. In addition, she was not only the first black woman to break the glass ceilings at NASA; she was often the first woman outright. She worked hard for recognition in a time when it was hard for women to rise through the ranks — even harder for a black woman. I am currently finishing up at West Virginia University, where Johnson has been honored with the renaming of a conference room within my academic college, the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. She was also named Most Influential by WVU’s student newspaper, the Daily Athenaeum.

Two NASA facilities have been named in her honor: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia. Most notably, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019 from President Donald Trump. 

On February 24th, 2020, we woke up to the news that Katherine Johnson, aged 101, passed away. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called her “an American hero”. The tributes quickly poured in, from Essence and PBS to multiple NASA accounts. There are no words that could accurately capture the contributions and impact of Katherine Johnson; all I have is “thank you”. 

Jillian K