Thanks to the book and film Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson is finally getting the accolades her life’s work deserves – but for a long time this American hero’s accomplishments were not widely known. Here’s just a taste of her incredible life:
In 1952, Johnson learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African-American women to serve as “computers;” namely, people who performed and checked calculations for technological developments. Johnson applied, and the following year she was accepted for a position at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Johnson not only proved adept at her calculations, she displayed a curiosity and assertiveness that caught her superiors by surprise. “The women did what they were told to do,” she recalled. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why.”
After only two weeks, Johnson was transferred from the African-American computing pool to Langley’s flight research division, where she talked her way into meetings and earned additional responsibilities. She achieved success despite difficulties at home: In 1956, her husband died of a brain tumor.
In 1958, after NACA was reformulated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Johnson was among the people charged with determining how to get a human into space and back.
Even as mechanical computers took on more and more computational work, Johnson’s calculations remained an invaluable asset for NASA. Their math wasn’t considered complete until she had checked it for accuracy. During her over thirty-year career there, her calculations played a part in nearly every major American space mission.
In September 2017, NASA announced that they would name a new building after Johnson.
Johnson’s humble response to a building named after her was said with a laugh: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy.”
Her trailblazing contributions were celebrated at the dedication ceremony where Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures and keynote speaker, said of the “human computers”: “We are living in a present that they willed into existence with their pencils, their slide rules, their mechanical calculating machines — and, of course, their brilliant minds.”
She said to Johnson: “Your work changed our history and your history has changed our future.”