Celebrating Women: Katherine Johnson Breaks Barriers

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Katherine Johnson Hidden Figures

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — As part of WAVY’s month-long celebration of women’s history, we’re sharing the stories of female pioneers.

One of those women made her mark in Hampton and in outer space.

Back in the 1950s, Katherine Johnson worked on complex, groundbreaking space-missions as a “human computer” for NASA.

“Just math problems,” said Johnson. “My best, I always did my best.”

Johnson, who turned 100 in August, helped calculate the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s journey in space, which was the first in American history. Johnson also gave the “go-ahead” to propel John Glenn into orbit.

“At NASA, all of it was my favorite,” Johnson said. “How far away is the moon?”

But as a woman and a minority, her work was often overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.”

The movie highlighted the work and challenges Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson faced while working at NASA.

“They were smart ladies and they did their job and they wanted to do their job,” said Johnson’s daughter and namesake, Katherine G. Moore. “Things changed because of the, I think just the determination and the eloquence, to me, of those women.”

Moore says she and her sisters knew where their mother worked, but they didn’t know the magnitude of what she did until they were older.

“I walked in the library and here’s this front-page of the Pittsburgh Courier in March of 1962,” Moore said. “They were giving her credit … this lady mathemetician at NASA who helped get the man to the moon.”

Moore says the movie accurately shows the challenges of segregation and gender bias — and it accurately shows how her mother handled those challenges.

“Something was always ‘less than.’ If that had been a stopgap, she wouldn’t have finished her job,” said Moore. “She took the problem out of the equation.”

Since then, buildings have been named in her honor, former President Barack Obama awarded her with a Presidental Medal of Freedom — but she still maintains she was simply doing her job.

“He was pleasant,” Johnson said of Obama.

The impact of her work only continues to grow and inspire women of all ages.

Her advice:

“Do your best at all times,” said Johnson.  “That’s the best you can do.”

Johnson will celebrate her 101st birthday in August.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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