Remembering Icon Katherine Johnson

This piece by Laura McDermott will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


For this edition, we are honouring the memory of Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician who worked at both NASA and their predecessor organisation for 35 years. Johnson played a crucial part in the success of the first NASA space missions during the twentieth-century Space Race. Sadly, Johnson passed away in February of this year at the age of 101, and we at The Beam want to celebrate her life with you – our readers – as she was a pioneer for black people and women around the world. Although her work was not widely or commonly acknowledged for much of her career, Johnson had become a household name towards the end of her life. She carved out a new path of representation for marginalised peoples within science, and she showed society that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can reach for the stars – or launch other individuals there instead.


Johnson worked as a human computer for NASA, following a period working as a teacher. She graduated from West Virginia University with two degrees – becoming one of the first three African American students to even enroll at the university. Johnson always had a talent for mathematics and counting, and she recalled her fascination with numbers in numerous interviews throughout her life.


At NASA, Johnson plotted trajectory analysis for the Freedom 7 mission in 1961 – the first human space flight in the Western world. John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, insisted that he would trust the new NASA electronic computers only after Johnson had gone through and personally checked the math. Glenn considered Johnson’s calculations a vital part of his pre-flight checklist. In the then-still-segregated South, a white male holding a black woman’s skill in such high regard was extraordinarily uncommon. Johnson also worked on the calculations for the historic Apollo 11 mission – the very first moon landing.


Johnson has been described by some as “a quiet triumph in a white man’s world.” It is a grave injustice that throughout her 101 year life, Johnson was recognised for all her talent and successes only in her final two decades. Johnson undeniably shaped history through her part in the space race; however, because she was a black woman, she was not written into history until recently. It is crucial that communities, such as ours at The Beam, continue to celebrate the successes of incredible people such as Johnson. In a time where women of color are still subject to the oppression of patriarchal structures, we must make a particular effort to ensure that the success of marginalised individuals are both recognised and remembered.


Katherine Johnson’s name has become a globally recognized household name following the success of book-turned-film Hidden Figures (2016), which was nominated for 3 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes. The film was among the movie recommendations in our last edition, The Beam #10, and it is still available to watch on Netflix. We definitely still recommend this triumph to anyone who has not yet seen it – and even if you have, lockdown is the perfect opportunity to rewatch this modern classic.