Pioneer broke race and gender barriers
Though she lived an incredibly full 101 years, the death of Katherine Johnson came as a bit of a surprise — and with some sadness. Giants like her seem as though they will be with us forever.
And Johnson was, truly, an American giant. Despite all the challenges that came with being born a black female in West Virginia in 1918, she refused to be stopped.
She was intelligent — particularly gifted in math and science — and had the inner strength to know she was meant to do something with those gifts.
What she did was to become so important to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s missions that John Glenn refused to be launched into space until Johnson had double-checked a computer’s calculations. He trusted her work completely.
Many people know about Johnson because of the film “Hidden Figures,” but during her career with NASA, Johnson refused to stay hidden.
During a 2011 interview with a television station, she said, “I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, ‘Well, the girls don’t usually go.’ and I said, ‘Well, is there a law?’ They said, ‘No.’ So then my boss said, ‘Let her go.'”
Eventually, NASA officials recognized how critical she had been to the space program, naming the agency’s Computational Research Facility in her honor.
In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars,” President Barack Obama said at the time.
Johnson is gone now, but the example she set for all of us will live on.