By Cate Cannon
Katherine Johnson, the engineer best known as being one of NASA’s “Hidden Figures”, passed away recently at the age of 101.
Johnson, a black woman who grew up in the early 20th century, made huge strides for women in the STEM fields. At a time when women were still considered domestic housewives, it was rare to find a female working in a field of intellect, let alone a woman of color. Johnson defied the stereotypical expectations and broke barriers. As seen in her portrayal in Hidden Figures by actress Taraji P. Henson, when men failed to find the answer, she computed answers beyond what a woman was thought to be able to comprehend and changed the way Americans understood space and physics.
In a time when America was in a tense race with the Soviet Union, Johnson’s calculations provided NASA with the information that allowed Neil Armstrong to land on the moon. This determined America as the winner of the Cold War, and changed space knowledge forever.
Johnson, a woman who deserved admiration and respect, received less than subpar treatment in her early work among men. As a black woman in the 1940s, she had to walk a mile to reach a bathroom that gave ‘coloreds’ access. Her name was not credited on the early documents which held her key calculations and research. The men in her division took credit for her tireless work and denied her the praise she deserved. Johnson, however, did not quit. The fierce mathematician fought her way to the top, outworking and outshining the men who felt they deserved unquestionable dominance, earning her a place in the aero-physics field that was deserved long before it was received.
Although Johnson became known to much of the world just a few years ago with the release of the book-based movie Hidden Figures, Johnson has been a person of importance in the black community since her time at NASA. Helping to break stereotypical expectations of women and colored people, Johnson left her mark on history.
Katherine Johnson will be remembered by all, not only for her intellect and part in the Cold War, but for the bravery and honor she depicted through her character.