Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s Black ‘human computers,’ has died

February 25, 2020, 5:58 PM UTC

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Katharine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who blazed past racial and gender barriers to become a key contributor to the U.S. space program, died yesterday. She was 101.

President Barack Obama, who awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, joined the chorus of accolades. “After a lifetime of reaching for the stars, today, Katherine Johnson landed among them. She spent decades as a hidden figure, breaking barriers behind the scenes. But by the end of her life, she had become a hero to millions—including Michelle and me,” he tweeted.

Johnson was hired into the all-Black West Area Computing team in 1953, part of the NASA precursor agency known as National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ or NACA. She stayed until her retirement in 1986. In between, her computations were baked into key analyses that informed the space program, including the trajectory of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to our Moon.

But the West Virginia native first walked into a primarily white world through a door opened by the legal system.

In 1940, she was one of three Black graduate students tapped to integrate the all-white West Virginia University; her state’s governor had seen the future after a 1938 Supreme Court decision that said white universities in nearby Missouri must admit Black graduate students if Black universities didn’t offer comparable programs.

Then, she was fact-checked, ignored, and discriminated against…until she gave us the moon.

“I loved going to work every single day,” Johnson said.

Most people feel a certain way about Johnson because of Hidden Figuresthe inspiring, award-winning 2016 film starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, with Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe playing her real-life NASA colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

But we must also thank another trailblazing Black woman for putting Johnson’s name in our mouths.

Back in 2010, Margot Lee Shetterly was listening to her dad, a retired research scientist, share familiar stories of his colleagues at NASA Langley Research Center. A surprising number of them were Black women. Shetterly, who was working on Wall Street at the time, suddenly heard the stories differently. “The facts of the story I knew growing up because I knew what my father did,” she told The Atlantic. “It was really that moment [in 2010] that called into question my understanding of that entire thing. Why the hell were there Black women at Langley in the segregated south in the ’50s? How did they get there? Where did they come from?”

Those questions compelled Shetterly to recalculate her own promising trajectory, which included high profile jobs at J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. Her quest became the #1 New York Times bestseller nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, on which the film was based. 

By the way, Shetterly is not giving up until she finds them all: She’s still collecting stories through her Human Computer Project, which aims to chart the contributions of all the women who worked at NACA and NASA starting in 1935.

But it took a village to make sure that future Katherine Johnsons also saw the film—an unofficial network of people who understood that this story was going to be good for their STEM souls, and future moonshots still to come. 

Among them were Charles Phillips, Chairman, and CEO of Infor, William M. Lewis, Jr. Co-Chairman of Investment Banking at Lazard, and Ken Chenault, then the Chairman and CEO of American Expresswho led a group of Black executives in arranging for free admission for Black and brown students to see the film across the country. Google hosted coding and viewing parties for girls interested in STEM. Facebook, AT&T, and 20th Century Fox, all found ways to bring the film to underserved audiences.

That Hidden Figures became a bestselling book and award-winning hit movie is the business case for diversity. 

That the world paused on a busy news day to acknowledge Johnson’s passing and celebrate the enormity of her contribution is the moral case. We are better people because we know who gave us the moon.

We are better people because we understand the work continues.

“When I’m traveling the world talking about Girls Who Code—whether to a classroom full of girls or to others during a big speech—there is one woman I always mention: NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson,” wrote Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the equity-in-STEM nonprofit Girls Who Code. For the Black, brown, and otherwise underrepresented girls she serves, “[Johnson] was so much more than her NASA credentials. She was a symbol of what they could be, what they could study, where they could thrive. No matter what they look like.”

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Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


"This is the story of broad success of women overall, and African American women specifically, in a job category that it's simply assumed where they don't exist. During a time of Jim Crow segregation, during a time when women frequently weren't even allowed to have credit cards in their own names, here were these women—large numbers of women—doing very high-level mathematical work at one of the highest scientific institutions in the world at that time.”

Margot Lee Shetterly

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