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Girl Bosses of History: Katherine G. Johnson

Visual by: August Kay


NASA’s Girl Boss Mastermind.

Part of my daily routine involves taking the bus every afternoon after school to make my way back home, on that trajectory I take the same bus every afternoon driven by the same bus driver. On this particular day my bus driver decided to strike up a conversation that minutes later, would inspire me to create this series for Women’s History Month.

In our conversation I told him I was studying Journalism and that I wanted it to take me all over the world, to which he replied that he’d much rather stay put in his hometown. He then proceeded to tell me that he would “never in a million years” get in a spaceship or go to the moon.

“Have you seen that new movie Hidden Figures? That was a good movie!” I had.

“They don’t teach you about people like that in school do they?” They don’t.

It struck me how true this was, how certain things were never taught in schools, how women are rarely spoken about in history classes. How the suffragette, women’s rights movements, achievements by women of color and landmarks in history accomplished by women were only short sentences in a history book. “But you do hear about John Glenn though!” I told him. He nodded and laughed as he agreed with me.

In that moment the title of the movie Hidden Figures began to make sense, these women were hidden figures in history, blurred by the people who did not want to tell their story, but we do. In the upcoming weeks of March (Women’s History Month) we will be featuring four women (of many) that have made history in the past and more recently. In this introduction of Girl Bosses of History we begin with the story of physicist and mathematician Katherine G. Johnson.

Katherine G. Johnson started working for NASA in 1953 at the Computing section for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Living in a time like the 50’s, when the United States was “separate but equal” and people of color were completely separated from society, Katherine first started at NASA working with mostly black women. However, briefly after Katherine started working, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a temporary job which later became four years of work examining data in a room where white males dominated.

In the year 1956, Katherine’s husband passed away from cancer and she became a single mother of three. A year later, without Katherine knowing it, an event would change her life: the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Katherine also co-authored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report that had all of the equations and coordinates for the landing position; this was a first for NASA, for a woman to receive recognition as a writer and contributor in a research report.

One year later, NASA was ready to send John Glenn into an orbital mission and Katherine was called to this mission to help with the numbers. At the time, she didn’t know that this would be the work she would be most known for. Moments before the launch, John Glenn asked to “Get the girl,” aka our girl boss Katherine Johnson to double check the numbers before the launch, “if she says they’re good then I’m ready to go”. Katherine’s numbers and calculations were perfect, which placed her at a turning point in history.

Some of the other work that Katherine Johnson is most proud of are the calculations she helped with for Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module and the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite.

She has authored and coauthored 26 research reports and retired in 1986.

Most recently, in 2015, Katherine Johnson at 97-years-old was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.


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