Katherine was always extremely bright; her intelligence was evident early-on when she was able to compete in the eighth grade level at the age of 10. Born in 1918 in West Virginia, she faced racial discrimination that prevented her from attending high school in her hometown. However, her father relocated over 100 miles to ensure she could receive an education. Katherine's exceptional intelligence led her to graduate from West Virginia State College at the age of 18 with a degree in mathematics and French. She started her career teaching mathematics but discovered her true calling in 1953 when she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. At NACA, she worked as a mathematician in the West Area Computing Unit, where she analyzed data alongside other talented black female mathematicians.
Katherine's dedication, curiosity, and precise calculations impressed her coworkers and superiors, leading her to transfer to Langley's flight research division, where she was also a standout. After NACA transitioned into NASA, where it is today, Katherine was asked to join the Space Tank Group (STG), a subdivision of space research for NASA during the 1960s that gave the United States the upper hand in the space race. Here, her calculations played a pivotal role in missions such as Project Mercury, Apollo 11, and the recovery of Apollo 13. Katherine's expertise and groundbreaking work made significant advancements in space travel possible.
It is important to note that Katherine's position at NACA was made available due to an executive order prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry. Even with that being the case, things were far from easy for Katherine and other African Americans looking for a place in the field of STEAM. Discrimination was abolished by law, but segregation was still prevalent in those workplaces. Black women were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, dining halls, or workspaces as their white counterparts. However, the West Area Computing Unit provided a space for black female mathematicians to work together and overcome these challenges. Katherine, in particular, quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to non-segregated positions.
Katherine was a pioneer in the fields of mathematics and aerospace engineering. Without her, the US would not have made the same advances in the field of space travel. She left her mark as a leader, an intellectual, and a mathematician during her time at NACA and NASA. Her excellence cemented her legacy as a legendary woman in her field. It also earned her several accolades, including the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations Team Award in 1967, the Mathematician of the Year award in 1997, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Katherine Johnson embodied the spirit of a trailblazing woman in STEAM.
In February 2020, Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101, leaving behind a remarkable legacy in the world of mathematics and STEAM. She lived a life of accomplishment and excellence, serving as an inspiration for us all to follow our passions regardless of bad circumstances.