How Katherine Johnson Became a STEM Pioneer

How Katherine Johnson Became a STEM Pioneer

Image credit: NASA

Katherine Johnson, pioneer of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), has been breaking down barriers all her life. The brilliant mathematician became the first black woman to desegregate West Virginia University in Morgantown and overcame patronizing attitudes about women and blacks to succeed as a pioneering mathematician at NASA (or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). She also demonstrated that a Solo Mom could help people explore outer space.

Johnson, whose story was told in the recently released movie Hidden Figures, was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From a young age, she demonstrated a thirst for knowledge and a strong aptitude for math. She graduated from high school at 14 and wasted no time pursuing higher education, attending West Virginia State College at 15. By the time she was 18, she had earned degrees in math and French, graduating summa cum laude. She was so talented at math that new math courses were designed just for her.

Few opportunities awaited black women in the 1930s, even for one as academically brilliant as Johnson, so she created her own. In 1938, she pursued graduate studies at West Virginia University in Morgantown—one of three black students who integrated the school, and the only female in this vanguard group. Soon thereafter, life moved quickly. She became a wife—marrying James Francis Goble—and then a mother of three girls.

For a while, she found professional fulfillment as a teacher, but in 1953, her life changed dramatically when she successfully applied for a position in the Guidance and Aviation Department of NASA, which was then known as NACA, or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. For years, NACA had been employing women to measure and calculate the results of wind tunnel tests. The women literally held a job title of “computer” (as depicted in Hidden Figures). In fact, since World War II, NACA had been hiring black women for these jobs. By 1953, space research and exploration was growing so rapidly that NACA expanded its hiring, which is how Johnson entered the picture.

She was no ordinary human computer. She was not satisfied taking orders to check calculations. Her curiosity about math inspired her to constantly ask her supervisors for more challenging work, and she frequently took her assignments well beyond the scope of what she was asked to do. In short, she refused to accept the status quo of a computer who took orders and completed tasks. Soon, she earned additional responsibilities as NACA (which became NASA in 1958) raced with the Soviet Union to build a leading space program.

Life was looking up—but life was also hard. The men she worked with didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms. They wanted her to drink from a “colored” coffee pot, and going to the bathroom meant walking half a mile across the campus in Virginia to the separate (and inconvenient) facilities provided for blacks. And she was looking after her husband, who was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Her husband passed away in 1956, when their three daughters were in high school.

Even amid the pressures of her job and the tragedy of losing her husband, Johnson was there for her kids. As her youngest daughter, Katherine Moore, would later recall to the (Morganton, North Carolina) News Herald, Johnson was always foremost a mother to her children, teaching them to sew and instilling in them a love of learning and teaching. (Two of Johnson’s three kids would later become teachers; a third passed away in 2010.) Johnson also set an example of humility and perseverance. Even as she continued to grow in her career, she did not talk about her incredible mastery of math that led to career advances at NASA.

She told her children that men could talk theory but women knew the math. Her ability to do complex math led to her calculating the trajectory for the first American in space, Alan Shepard, which was a historic breakthrough for NASA in 1961. By that time remarried, she had made her mark. Soon, NASA began using electronic computers to do highly complex calculations, but Johnson’s work was far from done. In 1962, John Glenn insisted that Johnson personally check the calculations made by electronic computers before he became the first American to orbit the earth.

Johnson would go on to combine her math prowess and computer skills to assist in many more landmark moments for NASA, including the 1969 Apollo moon landing and the launch of the Space Shuttle program. Her calculations also contributed to the safe return of Apollo 13 after the spacecraft experienced a malfunction in space. She retired in 1986.

And yet, for all her accomplishments, her children had to find out on their own how great she was. Moore had no idea that her mother was playing a crucial role in space exploration until she was in college and saw her mom’s photo in a newspaper story.

“Growing up we knew she was smart,” she told the News Herald. “But she was Mom.” And the 98-year-old recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose story is being told in movie theaters across America, continues to be Mom to her daughters and an inspiration to women in STEM everywhere.

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