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The Life and Legacy of Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a pioneering mathematician and aerospace engineer whose groundbreaking work at NASA helped send astronauts into space and back to Earth safely. Her remarkable contributions to the space program were largely unrecognized for decades, but her legacy has now been cemented in history, inspiring countless women and people of color to pursue STEM fields.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson demonstrated a love for numbers at an early age, showing an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics. She began attending high school at the age of 10, and by the time she graduated at the age of 14, she had already completed all of the math courses offered by her school.

Johnson attended West Virginia State College and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French. She went on to pursue graduate studies in mathematics at West Virginia University, but left before completing her degree to start a family.

NASA Career

In 1953, Johnson began her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She worked as a human "computer" for the organization, performing complex calculations by hand that were essential to the success of the space program.

Her work was so important that, in 1962, astronaut John Glenn specifically requested that she verify the calculations made by the electronic computers used to plan his orbit around the Earth. Johnson's calculations were found to be more accurate than those of the computers, and Glenn insisted that she personally check the figures before he would agree to the mission.

In addition to her contributions to the space program, Johnson was a trailblazer for women and people of color in the field of mathematics. She was one of the first African-American women to work as a mathematician at NACA, and later, NASA. Johnson broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of mathematicians and engineers, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.


Johnson's legacy has been celebrated in many ways in recent years, including the 2016 film "Hidden Figures," which told the story of Johnson and other African-American women who worked as human "computers" for NASA. The film brought attention to the contributions of these women and inspired a new generation of scientists and engineers.

In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. He praised her for her contributions to the space program and for her work as a pioneer in the field of mathematics.

Johnson passed away in 2020 at the age of 101, but her contributions to STEM fields will continue to inspire and educate future generations.


Katherine Johnson's legacy is a testament to the importance of perseverance and dedication in STEM fields. Her groundbreaking work as a mathematician and aerospace engineer has paved the way for future generations of scientists and engineers, and her story continues to inspire and educate people around the world.

As we strive to create a more diverse and inclusive STEM community, it is important to remember the contributions of pioneers like Johnson and to continue working toward a more equitable and just society. STEM Ed Today encourages young people to follow in her footsteps and pursue their passions, no matter how unconventional they may seem.


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