Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918, and was one of three Black students to integrate the state’s graduate schools. After graduating with highest honors in 1937, she taught at a Black public school in Virginia. In 1953, she started working in the Langley Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where she was supervised by Dorothy Vaughan for four years. For the next 33 years, Johnson’s analysis and calculations would be used in several missions, including Freedom 7 in 1961, America’s first human spaceflight. She co-authored 26 research reports over the course of her career, and would become most known for her work on John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962. President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 2015.
Mary Jackson graduated from the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1942 with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences. She began work at the Langley Laboratory’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951 where she spent two years reporting to Dorothy Vaughan. She went on to become NASA’s first Black woman engineer. She worked in this capacity for almost twenty years, but eventually left the engineering field after growing frustrated by the limits that were being placed on her career trajectory in terms of advancing to higher positions. She went on to take the role of Federal Women’s Program Manager at Langley, where she worked hard to ensure that a new generation of NASA’s women mathematicians, engineers and scientists were hired and given a clear path to career advancement.
Dorothy Vaughan joined the Langley Laboratory in 1943, in a position she originally believed would last only until the end of World War II. The Laboratory soon began hiring Black women to meet an incredibly high demand for staff, and Vaughan was assigned to the segregated West Area Computing unit. She was eventually promoted to head the section, and went on to be a strong advocate for women computers facing issues with promotion and pay increases. Dorothy Vaughan was in charge of West Computing for nearly ten years. Along with the other West Computers, she was transferred to the new Analysis and Computation Division in 1958 when NACA became NASA, and segregated facilities were abolished.
(Images of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson courtesy of NASA)
Published in 2016 by author, Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures, chronicles the incredible lives of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, whose work was instrumental in American space exploration. (Image courtesy of Chet Strange for The New York Times, Video courtesy of The Boston Herald)
Katherine Johnson’s career as a mathematician spanned 33 years, during which her expertise was instrumental in American space exploration.Here, she gives some insight into the kind of work she did for NASA. (Image and video: Washington Post)
“They are hidden figures no more!” Taraji P. Henson declared in her acceptance speech at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Hidden Figures won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Henson portrayed Katherine Johnson in the film. (Image: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)
Katherine Johnson received a standing ovation at the 89th Annual Academy Awards. NASA Astronaut Yvonne Cagle escorted Johnson onstage, where the stars of Hidden Figures received and honored her. (Image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)