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Who Was Katherine Johnson?

If her name is familiar to you, it's likely because you have watched the movie Hidden Figures in your science class. In the archives of scientific history, few names are as prominent as Katherine Johnson's. Her remarkable journey from a gifted child in rural West Virginia to a pioneering mathematician at NASA has left a permanent mark on space exploration and the fight for racial and gender equality in STEM.

Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson displayed an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics. She began attending high school at 13 and enrolled in West Virginia State College at the age of 18. She graduated with the highest honors and a PhD in mathematics and soon took a job teaching at a public school.

Her career in NASA began in 1953 when she joined the agency's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). She faced formidable challenges, as this was a time when segregation and gender discrimination were still rampant. However, she was able to push through and quickly earned a reputation as a mathematician with unparalleled skill.

One of her most significant contributions was her work on the calculations for John Glenn's historic 1962 mission, which made him the first American to orbit the Earth. Johnson's precise calculations helped ensure Glenn's safe return, and he famously requested her specifically to verify the computer's calculations. Her success in this endeavour shattered stereotypes about women's capabilities in mathematics and engineering.

Johnson continued to make groundbreaking contributions throughout her career, including working on the Apollo program, which led to the historic 1969 moon landing. Her work not only helped navigate spacecraft but also laid the foundation for future space exploration.

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama. Her story was also immortalised in the movie Hidden Figures when it came out in 2016, which is still played yearly by science teachers across the nation.

Her legacy extends beyond her scientific achievements, as she played a pivotal role in advancing racial and gender equality in her time at NASA. Her work had a positive effect, opening doors for women and people of color in STEM fields. Johnson is one of the most prominent female figures within science and we thank her for all she has done.


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