Much has been said and written about the corrosive effects that systemic racism has on people’s health, mental health, economic status, life expectancy, educational opportunities and overall wellbeing. Much has especially been said about the effects of centuries of racism on Black Americans during February’s national observance of Black History Month.

Last Saturday Feb 20, on the 59th anniversary of astronaut John Glenn’s historic launch to become the first American to orbit the Earth, NASA launched a rocket called the “SS Katherine Johnson”.  It carried vital supplies to the International Space Station.  The rocket was launched from Wallops Island, VA only 100 miles from where Ms. Johnson worked for three decades at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

A lifetime of “firsts”

Katherine Johnson was a Black woman and a mathematical genius who graduated college with a degree in mathematics and French at the age of 19.  She broke gender and racial barriers by being the first female Black student in West Virginia University’s graduate math program in 1939. As a widow and single mother, she broke barriers again in the 1950’s when she was the first woman and first Black person to work on the NASA team that developed the equations needed for orbital spaceflight.  This was in segregated Hampton, Virginia, before the age of computers and during the space race with the Soviet Union. On the eve of the liftoff of Glenn’s historic flight in February 1962, he asked if Ms. Johnson had personally calculated and verified the all-important re-entry equations.   He was re-assured that she had. The accuracy of these calculations meant the difference between a safe splashdown in the Caribbean Sea and a fiery death in Earth’s upper atmosphere.  She had indeed done so, and they were completely accurate.

Glenn’s successful mission was a turning point in the space race.  Ms. Johnson went on to have a long and productive career as a mathematician for NASA, authoring or co-authoring 26 research reports and playing a vital but hidden role in America’s Moon landings.  She retired from Langley in 1986 after 33 years of public service.

An American hero

Katherine Johnson’s and other Black women’s unheralded work for NASA was the subject of the 2016 film, Hidden Figures.  In 2015 at age 97, Ms. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Metal Of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award from President Barack Obama.  She died on Feb 24, 2020 at the age of 101, prompting the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, to say: “ She was an American hero, and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”.

About the Author

Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.

About Espyr

For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change.  For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.


Space Station Launch Honors Hidden Figures Mathematician

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Associated Press


Katherine Johnson Biography