This African-American Female Scientist Helped Launch the Space Race

Katherine Johnson, along with other African-American women, were the brains behind John Glenn's mission to space. NASA

For decades, most Americans had never heard of Katherine Johnson.

That all changed after the film "Hidden Figures" was released in 2016. The movie, which is based on a true story, features Johnson and two other scientists who helped launch John Glenn into space on the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

"Hidden Figures" shines the spotlight on unsung scientists Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who made the Friendship 7 mission possible. These women were members of a group of "human computers" charged with calculating flight paths and other aeronautical measurements necessary for NASA to win the space race.

Because of Jim Crow laws, these scientists were segregated from white scientists and were even referred to as "colored computers."

These women faced a myriad of struggles as they navigated civil rights and gender inequality issues while performing groundbreaking science.

The period drama is an adaptation of journalist Margot Lee Shetterly’s "Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race."

Honoring a legacy

In 2019, NASA renamed one of its facilities in West Virginia after Johnson. The Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, West Virginia, is now known as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. The main duties performed are making sure software programs operate.

"I am thrilled we are honoring Katherine Johnson in this way as she is a true American icon who overcame incredible obstacles and inspired so many," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "It’s a fitting tribute to name the facility that carries on her legacy of mission-critical computations in her honor."

Johnson died on Feb. 24, 2020, at the age of 101. In tribute to her on Twitter, Bridenstine wrote that Johnson "was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."

Johnson was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2015 by then-President Obama.

As more books and films about women and minorities shine light on these unsung pioneers, the trailblazers will get the recognition they deserve. And as younger audiences discover these heroes, their understanding and enthusiasm for STEM fields is likely to grow. (In fact, if you want to know more about NASA and race relations, there's a compelling history of the changing role of race on the NASA website.)