By: Jesse A. Cook (Executive Sports Editor)
Thousands of scientists, mechanics, test pilots, soldiers, and many others labored for over a decade on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs that brought mankind to the moon, but few had as significant an impact as America’s hidden figure, Katherine Johnson.
On Monday, February 24, Johnson passed away at her retirement home in Newport News, West Virginia.
Former correspondent in the Barack Obama White House and Sharon High School 2008 graduate Dominique Mann said Johnson left an important mark on history worldwide. She said, “I think more people are learning to recognize hidden figures everywhere, especially after hearing Katherine Johnson’s story. Although I think we have ways to go when it comes to racism and gender equality, it’s important to honor how deep of an impact women like Katherine Johnson have made on society. I think if anything, I’m seeing more openness from people to sharing their story and telling that of others to inspire change. That’s why inclusion is so important in storytelling and across industries.”
Born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918 as Creola Katherine Coleman, she showed incredible mathematics abilities from a very young age. She graduated from high school at 14 and she graduated from West Virginia State University at 18. She spent the next 15 years of her life struggling to find a job in mathematics, as well as struggling through a tumultuous marriage.
In 1952, she earned a job with the newly established National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
First Hispanic woman in space, former astronaut on the Space Shuttle Discovery, former director of N.A.S.A., and current Vice Chair of the National Science Board Ellen Ochoa said that the publication and production of the book and movie, ‘Hidden Figures,’ shined a light on more than just Johnson, but all African American women in engineering. She said, “It has been a great opportunity to be able to showcase current African American women engineers at N.A.S.A.—many of them have participated in showings of the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ for students and other groups, with the opportunity to talk about their own story.”
In the midst of the joy rode of the 1950s, one of the few periods in the 20th Century of relative prosperity in America as far as foreign conflicts, racism and sexism still plagued every corner of the country. Johnson spent the majority of the decade working as a computing mathematician in a segregated aeronautics program, pent up in a tight room with other women. She worked in the dark and her work was credited to ‘N.A.S.A.’ while white and male mathematicians put their own name at the bottom of their papers and received the credit.
“I’m not surprised that Katherine Johnson’s story is unrecognized, given America’s history with racism. There are many, many, many more Katherine Johnsons even today who aren’t properly recognized. Everyone has a role to play in recognizing and elevating each other’s contributions, especially valuing those who are historically left out of society, as we continue to make history today,” said Mann.
In 1958, Johnson’s division of N.A.C.A. disbanded and she found work with N.A.S.A. She would work in the shadows until her retirement in 1986. During those 28 years, she worked on the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
“The Apollo program itself made a huge impact on humanity; to learn that African American women were a part of solving the technical challenges of that program has been incredible. I’ve also seen the response that people are outraged that they grew up not knowing anything about it; she would have had the opportunity to inspire people for many decades, including inspiring young girls (and boys) into setting high goals for themselves in whatever field they chose, if only they had known about her,” said Ochoa.
Johnson’s career was no ordinary experience.
On Alan Shephard’s first space flight, the first time an American ventured into space, Johnson’s pre-flight calculations helped guide his trajectory. Before John Glenn, considered ‘The All-American Man,’ made his historic orbit around the Earth, he asked specifically for Johnson to verify the calculations prior to his flight because he did not trust any mathematician like he trusted her.
She played a key role in drafting the calculations that guided the crew of Apollo 8 to the first orbit around the moon, as well as the calculations that guided the crew of Apollo 11 to the first landing on the surface of the moon. When an oxygen tank on the side of the Saturn V capsule during the spaceflight to the moon of Apollo 13 exploded, crippling the mission, her calculations saved the spaceflight and brought the crew safely home to Earth.
Ochoa said that Johnson’s career was too amazing only to be discovered by the public when she was 97. She said, “Really a wasted opportunity, but at least now there is widespread knowledge of the role she and others like her played.”
Mann said that Johnson’s life, despite being widely discovered so late, still provides an incredible inspiration. She said, “She’s an inspiration to everyone. Just seeing her succeed in a historically underrepresented field, despite the extraordinary odds she faced, is proof that not only can others do the same no matter their background, but also that society needs to do a better job of breaking down barriers. Her story shouldn’t be an anomaly. For those of you studying math, science, and pursuing any other subject or dream right now, maybe doubting whether you can succeed: keep going. Don’t doubt yourself. Your contributions—and who you are, no matter your background—is so important and world-changing. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.