Five Life Lessons from Katherine Johnson, a Black Mathematician Who Became a Star
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, the mathematician and physicist whose critical calculations helped fuel NASA’s successful quest to beat Russia in the race to space, has died at the age of 101.
For most of her long life, Johnson’s seminal work remained unknown, along with that of a cadre of black women hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s predecessor) on the heels of an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry.
Employed in a workplace forced but not eager to desegregate, and all of the challenges that come with that, Johnson–a widowed mother of three at the time–persevered. Her resume includes not only Project Mercury, portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures, but 1969’s Apollo 11 (the first flight to the moon), and the Space Shuttle program.
While President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, it was not until the 2016 book Hidden Figures was published that Johnson’s story became broadly known. The following year–more than three decades after she had retired from NASA in 1986–the award-winning film made her a star.
Johnson would live to see a NASA facility named for her in February 2019. She would also live to see little girls dressing up in NASA uniforms for Halloween, sporting glasses and carrying books, proud to embody her brilliance and groundbreaking achievements.
Just last November, Johnson received a Congressional Gold Medal for her contribution to space travel, along with her colleagues, mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Vaughan and Jackson received their awards posthumously.
Once dubbed “the human computer,” the 1937 graduate of West Virginia State University was one of three academically gifted black students chosen to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools, according to her NASA biography. According to the book Hidden Figures, education was always the primary focus in her family.
She began her career as a teacher – one of the only career tracks open to her. But she jumped at the chance to become a researcher when the space program opened its doors in 1953.
Always fascinated by numbers, Johnson once recalled that as a child, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed….anything that could be counted, I did.”
Always aware of her gifts and proud, working in an almost all-white male environment, she focused on any advantages she could, once noting, “Men don’t pay attention to small things.”
Having lived more than a century, and long enough to receive the acclaim and admiration she was due, it’s clear the numbers were in her favor. Here are a few inspiring quotes from this great woman who became a STEM hero.