University of Portsmouth's History Blog

International Women’s Day 2021: Katherine Johnson: Mathematician at NASA

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are delighted that UoP history graduate Ian Atkins has written this profile of pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

For International Women’s Day I have chosen to write about Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician, most famous for her work in calculation of the trajectory for manned space orbits, and subsequent lunar expeditions.[1] Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on the 26th August 1918. She was the youngest of four children, her mother a teacher and her father an all-purpose odd job man.[2] Katherine had always excelled at maths and was ahead of her class from an early age. Margot Lee Shetterly indicates that “Johnson was ahead of her contemporaries at every level, she enrolled at High School aged thirteen and was often if not all of the time top of her class”.[3]

Katherine continued this diligent rise in education into her college years: she graduated from High school top of her class aged eighteen, after which she followed her mother into the teaching profession. When the quiet integration of race in the school system happened in West Virginia in 1939, Johnson along with two other black men were picked to attend the prestigious West Virginia University.[4] After just a year however, Johnson decided to leave and focus on starting a family, clearly still the focus of the woman in 1940s America. It is unclear if this was her choice or one that society dictated. Johnson returned to teaching when her daughters were older. In 1952 at a family gathering, a relative suggested that she applied for the open positions at the all-black West Area Computing Section at NASA forerunner: NACA.[5]

There she excelled as a ‘Computer’, the term for a person who could calculate figures and stats long before the electronic versions.[6] Johnson made a steady rise in the WAC Section excelling in many aspects of her job. She was well known among her colleagues and was making inroads in mathematical research from the beginning of her career. Katherine suffered family tragedy in 1956 when her first husband, James Goble, died of an inoperable brain tumour. Three years later however, she met and married second husband Jim Johnson.  They were married for 60 years until his own death in 2019. During the Cold War period known as the Space Race the Soviet Union beat all competition when it launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, thus changing the career path of Johnson and her colleagues. Robert A Devine has assessed that the “Eisenhower administration weren’t initially concerned by the launch, the gravitas of Russia coming first was a spur to get the job done for the US”. [7] When the NACA was amalgamated into NASA in 1958 Johnson naturally came along with the programme. She was by now providing expert mathematical data. Katherine was assertive in terms of her career: her oral testimony details that she worked as hard if not harder than her male colleagues, telling people that she had done the work (necessary data analysis and mathematical equations) required to be included in meetings and doctoral reviews.[8]

As demonstrated in the 2016 Theodore Melfi biographical film Hidden Figures Katherine and her colleagues really came to the fore in 1962. The film delicately demonstrates the objectification of both race and sex in 1950s/60 America. As has been touched on, there was always a prejudice toward women and more so black women. The film aims in part to show a break down of the segregated barriers these exceptionally clever women faced. Using artistic licence, one of the film’s pivotal moments is when Johnson is confronted by her superior male colleague Al Harrison for taking many extended breaks. When she explains to him that as a black woman she must walk over half a mile to use the ‘coloured only’ bathroom he is appalled and thus breaks down the sign on the ‘whites only’ bathroom that is much closer to her work station. Later in the production, Katherine’s cementation in history is shown when she manually calculates the landing coordinates after a fault in the now more widely used mechanical computers. The film demonstrates the strong professional relationship that Johnson held with her male colleagues, although some are sceptical and some, including her immediate white female supervisor, are outright racist. The film depicts the success Johnson had and the fact that it was her work and tenacity that won through.[9]


As Dorothy Vaughan’s biography shows, much of the segregation in the film had already been dismantled before the timeline in the production.[10] However, what the film does show is that even during the days of competing with a much greater adversary (the USSR) old prejudices still prevailed. The women that Hidden Figures depicts were good enough if not better for the roles that they held, and it is because of them that the Space Programme was able to be such a great success.[11]

In conclusion, Katherine Johnson is truly one of the 20th Century’s ‘Hidden Figures’: a woman who defied the odds of both race and gender in the post war period of US history, a woman who was not breaking down barriers for the sake of it but was doing so because she was good enough to do it. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015, aged 97. It is perhaps still the legacy of politics and racial tensions in the US that it took the outgoing first black President to award her the US’s Highest Civilian Honour. Johnson was a forthright and tenacious woman, a strong advocate of all creeds and colours and especially young girls and women getting involved in and excelling in the sciences. Katherine Johnson died aged 101 on 24th February 2020; at her death as one of her many obituaries, NASA administrator James Bridenstine described her as “an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”.[12] This being noted, Johnson was truly a pioneering woman, one that defied the odds and allowed for ground-breaking space work to be undertaken in an age where those around her believed anything was possible. A truly inspiring woman.

[1] The National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA). “NASA History: Katherine Johnson- The Girl Who Loved to Count.” https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-loved-to-count, last accessed 01 March 2021.

[2] David Gutman, “West Virginian of the Year: Katherine G. Johnson,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, December 26, 2016, 10.

[3] The National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA). “NASA History: Katherine Johnson- Biography.” https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography, last accessed 01 March 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Oxford English Dictionary, “Computer,” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[7] Robert A. Devine, The Sputnik Challenge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), XIV.

[8] National Visionary Leadership Project. “Katherine Johnson: Oral History Archive.” http://www.visionaryproject.org/johnsonkatherine/, last accessed 01 Mar 2021.

[9] International Movie Database. “Hidden Figures, 2016 Film Dir. Theodore Melfi.” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1, last accessed 01 March 2021.

[10] The National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA). “NASA History: Dorothy Vaughan-Biography.” https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography, last accessed 01 March 2021.

[11] Rotten Tomatoes: The Leading Online Aggregator of Film and TV Shows. “Hidden Figures.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hidden_figures, last accessed 01 March 2021.

[12] James Bridenstine, Via Twitter, “Katherine Johnson Obituary.”  Twitter, 24 February 2020.

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