Everyone’s heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first people on the moon, but without the work of Katherine Johnson they might never have made it.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, the daughter of a handyman and a former teacher, Johnson was raised to understand the importance of education. Graduating summa cum laude at the age of 18 with degrees in Maths and French, she became the first African American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University.
Known as the “human computer”, Johnson started working at NASA in 1953 in a pool of women employed to perform calculations. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Astronaut John Glenn was so impressed by Johnson that even after NASA started using electronic computers he requested that she personally check the calculations before his flight. This flight, in the Friendship 7, led to Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
Johnson showed an aptitude for electronic computer skills, which, combined with her mathematical talents, were critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing and the start of the Space Shuttle programme.
And she never let discrimination against her gender or race stop her from going where she needed to be.
“My dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’ I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.” – Katherine Johnson
It’s a philosophy she took with her to NASA.
“I just happened to be working with guys,” she said, “and when they had briefings I asked permission to go. They said, ‘The girls don’t usually go.’ I said, ‘Is there a law?’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.’” – Katherine Johnson
Johnson is a truly inspirational woman who is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Early 2017 will see the release of Hidden Figures, a big budget biopic of Johnson and the other African American women who were involved in NASA’s early space missions.