Remembering Katherine Johnson, Who Took Charge of Her Own Story and Computed a Path to the Moon

by Ted Burnham

Katherine Johnson – a brilliant, boundary-pushing black physicist and long-time NASA mathematician – died this week.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures popularized Johnson’s work with the U.S. space program, but she’d been something of a legend around the Avanoo offices for years before that. We’ve often held her up as an example of a principle we talk about a lot here:

To unlock the potential of your life and career, you have to take control of your own story.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia – a time and place where black children weren’t expected to receive more than an eighth-grade education.

But Johnson loved learning – especially math – and she didn’t let cultural expectations define her story. She excelled in her classes, finishing high school by age 14. At 18 she graduated from West Virginia State College with the highest honors in Math and French.

In the 1950s, Johnson took a job as a “computer” at Langley Research Center in Virginia – she “computed” math equations to calculate rocket trajectories for the space program. It was the only job women of color were offered in the field. But Johnson wasn’t going to let herself be just a “computer”.

In 1956, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. When the Flight Division team at Langley came together to discuss the U.S. response, Johnson and the other computers were excluded.

She asked why, but the male engineers shrugged. “Girls don’t attend the meetings,” they said.

Johnson was undeterred – she knew her story was bigger than the engineers’ imagination. So she again took control. She confronted her boss, and asked pointedly, “Is there a law against my attending?”

He admitted there wasn’t. So Johnson insisted: the engineers needed her mathematical expertise, and she needed to be in the room – as a respected member of the team.

Katherine Johnson’s drive to grow, and take charge of her own story, put her at the center of one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

If you’ve seen Hidden Figures, you know what happened next. Katherine Johnson’s drive to grow, and take charge of her own story, put her at the center of one of humankind’s greatest achievements. She became a critical part of the U.S. space program, and her calculations helped take astronauts to the edge of space, then into orbit, and finally to the moon.

Imagine if every one of your employees felt empowered to take that kind of control over their own stories… their own lives… their own careers. How far would your organization go?

—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more: Avanoo.com
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