Johnson wasn’t the first black woman to work as a NASA mathematician. She wasn’t the first to write a research report for NASA either. However, Johnson was eventually recognized as a trailblazer for women and African-Americans in the newly-made field of spaceflight.
Johnson, like many members of the space program, was overshadowed by life-risking astronauts whose flights she calculated, as well as the department heads whom Johnson served.
Nevertheless, Johnson commanded mainstream attention when in 2015 former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the country’s highest civilian honor.
The following year, Johnson’s research was celebrated in the best-selling book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and the Oscar-nominated film adaptation starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.
Katherine Johnson was “critical to the success of the early U.S. space programs,” Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, said in a 2017 interview. “She had a singular intellect, curiosity and skill set in mathematics that allowed her to make many contributions, each of which might be considered worthy of a single lifetime.”
Before becoming a “computer” at the NACA”s flight research division, Johnson worked as a schoolteacher. Johnson was said to have “counted everything” as a child — “the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed.”