By Kat McGregor
Katherine Johnson, former NASA mathematician, passed away this week aged 101. The legacy Ms Johnson leaves behind is beyond estimation; she broke through the barrier, setting the precedent for women and people of colour to pursue a career in space and technology research.
In 1953 Ms Johnson worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA); the predecessor to NASA. African-Americans were separated from their white colleagues; different cafeterias, bathrooms, work spaces. Outside the walls of NACA in Virginia segregation ran even deeper, African-Americans had restrictions on education rights; they were made to sit at the back of public buses and were forbidden entry to “whites only” public areas such as parks and restaurants.
Ms Johnson smashed through more than one glass ceiling: as a woman in the USA in the 1950s, you weren’t even able to get a loan without the help of your husband or father; women weren’t seen as capable of handling financial responsibilities. It was common thought that women’s brains were too small for science and, even in NACA, the female mathematicians (known as computers) were thought of as calculators, not thinkers. Ms Johnson refused to rise to the sexism and racism around her; she used her intelligence, wit and charm to “prove her place”.
The Space Race between USA and USSR continued through to the 1960s, NACA became NASA, and Katherine Johnson became a household name… in houses such as the Armstrongs and Aldrins. Johnson had worked tirelessly to gain entry to the Flight Research Division, working alongside aeronautical engineers.
Her hard work of studying orbital mechanics, the maths behind space re-entry and rocket propulsion paid off and Johnson became a member of NASA’s space programme. She co-authored a paper published in 1960 that broke down the mathematics of spacecraft trajectory; in doing so she was the first woman to ever have a paper published by NASA. In this paper Johnson invented the calculations that led to the first American orbiting in space.
Johnson was also a vital research mathematician in NASA’s successful Apollo missions -John Glen refused to fly anything that hadn’t been checked by Ms Johnson personally- , leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. She spent the rest of her life utterly devoted to flight research and expanding our understanding of space; she was one of the first to utter the old truism; “I truly loved going to work every single day — and when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work!”
Ms Johnson was at the forefront of the 1950’s myriad upheavals in society and it’s wonderful that she lived to see a Hollywood film that focused not just on her inspiring path, but on the other African-Americans who worked so hard in pursuit of a career in the white, male dominated world of STEM. Whilst she still, sadly, remains far from a pop culture icon, she is a true inspiration. Johnson is testament to what one person can achieve when they have passion and drive.