Katherine Johnson: Meet the G.I.R.L.s Behind ‘Hidden Figures’

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are the real-life go-getters, innovators, risk-takers, and leaders of Hidden Figures, the story of the African American women mathematicians behind some of NASA’s greatest victories. Follow along as we honor each of these inspiring women who broke through countless barriers around race, gender, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Katherine Johnson—the Risk-taker

Katherine Johnson at her desk. Image via NASA

“Luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity. If you’re prepared and the opportunity comes up, it’s your good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been prepared for the job.”

As far back as she remembers, Katherine Johnson had a love of counting.

“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

Her classes came easy to her; in fact, she completed eighth grade by the age of 10. And because her county did not provide higher education for African American students after eighth grade, Katherine’s father moved the family 120 miles away so she could attend high school. She adjusted to her new school quickly and finished four years later.

Katherine Johnson, 1971. Image vis NASA

Soon after, Katherine attended West Virginia State College, graduating summa cum laude with degrees in math and French—at the age of 18. The following year, she became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University; however, she felt unwelcomed and left to pursue teaching.

In 1939, Katherine married James Francis Goble. They had three daughters—Joylette, Katherine, and Constance—all of whom were Girl Scouts! Although Katherine had to work incredibly hard to provide for her family, she enjoyed teaching, feeling it was her responsibility to instill discipline and self-respect in her students and help advance the African American community.

It was in 1952 that a life-changing opportunity came knocking at Katherine’s door. On learning that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later to become NASA, was hiring African American women to serve as “computers,” checking calculations for technological developments, Katherine joined the effort. She quickly caught the attention of her new bosses and was asked to temporarily join the all-male flight research team. While the racial and gender barriers were still there, Katherine ignored them and simply asked to be included in meetings, insisting that she had done the work and she belonged. Her temporary position with the team soon became permanent.

Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Image via the White House

By 1959 Katherine was in charge of calculating the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. How did she get that job? She took a risk—she stood up and made clear her intent. She told her boss, “You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.” She was never questioned again. In fact, in 1962, NASA started using computers for the first time—but it relied on Katherine to verify the numbers. Katherine’s remarkable accuracy soon led to the historic Apollo 11 mission that successfully landed the first humans on the moon.

Katherine continued to serve as a key asset for NASA until her retirement in 1986. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, for pioneering the advancement of African American women in STEM. Today, her groundbreaking work and unwavering spirit continue to inspire girls and women around the world.

Source: Katherine Johnson: Meet the G.I.R.L.s Behind ‘Hidden Figures’

One comment on “Katherine Johnson: Meet the G.I.R.L.s Behind ‘Hidden Figures’

  1. sjrisingstar says:

    Reblogged this on See a need, take the lead and commented:
    As y’all contemplate the opportunities to complete a gold award, evidence of the imacts these women have made was such a good reminder. These ‘Hidden Figures’ went against the norm and made a difference for everyone around them. What a good example for all of us!


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