To truly appreciate Johnson’s achievements, it’s necessary to understand the world she lived in. Johnson is black, and grew up during a time when segregation, or separating people by skin color, was legal in much of the South. African-Americans were forced to use separate bathrooms, attend separate schools, and eat at separate restaurants.
Because of a labor shortage following World War II, Johnson and dozens of other black women were hired to work at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Johnson started in 1953 as a “human computer.” In this job, Johnson and her female colleagues crunched the numbers in the equations used to design, test, and fly planes and spacecraft reliably and safely. Some equations had up to 35 variables! Together, their results helped launch rockets into space and safely transport astronauts into space—and back home again.