Katherine Johnson

Gifted Mathematician and NASA Aerospace Pioneer

Image Courtesy NASA

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Katherine Johnson was an aerospace pioneer and a math expert at NASA who calculated the trajectory for many of America’s legendary spaceflights.  Among these included America’s first astronaut flight into space, the first American manned capsule orbit around Earth, and mankind’s first spacecraft landing mission on the moon. 

 

Johnson, an African American, was born in 1918 in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia.  From an early age, she had a fascination with numbers.  Johnson recalled, “I counted everything.  I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

 

Johnson loved numbers and she excelled at school.  By the time she was 10 years old, Johnson was already a high school freshman.  This was truly exceptional in an era when school usually ended in 8th grade for African Americans.  Her father, who was a farmer, was determined that his bright little daughter would have a chance to meet her potential.  Her father drove his family 120 miles from their home to the community of Institute, West Virginia, where she could continue to receive her education through high school.  Johnson’s performance in school confirmed her father made the right decision, as she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and graduated from college at 18.

 

At 15, Johnson started attending college at West Virginia State College.  Johnson took classes to be a mathematician and aspired to be a research mathematician.  She learned how to solve complex problems through math, especially geometry. Geometry is a type of math that uses lines, angles and shapes.  Johnson, at 18, graduated with highest honors and received two degrees (one in French and the other in Mathematics).  When West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools, Johnson was handpicked to be one of three African American students to attend that state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. 

 

A NASA administrator recalled that “Johnson once remarked that even though she grew up in the height of segregation, she didn’t think much about it, ‘I didn’t have time for that … My dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’  I don’t have a feeling of inferiority.  Never had.  I’m as good as anybody, but no better.’ ”

 

Despite her humble statement, NASA did recognize, as reflected in its written articles about her, that Johnson had a “brilliance with numbers.”  Johnson began her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA (later renamed NASA) before it used electronic computers.  Johnson explained that she worked as a human “computer” at NACA “when the computer wore a skirt.”  NACA asked these human computer workers to solve math problems using an adding machine and a slide rule.  

 

Johnson, however, was different from the other human computer workers and went beyond this task.  Johnson asked a lot of questions to learn more about her work and about NASA.  As a result, she started attending meetings that only men attended.  Johnson became a team member who worked at NASA on different space projects.  She studied how to use geometry for space travel and figured out what calculations to apply based on this analysis.  Johnson figured out the paths for the spacecraft to orbit Earth and to land on the moon.  

 

NASA relied on Johnson’s math and it worked.  In 1960, Johnson coauthored a report laying out equations for orbital spaceflight.  It was the first time that a woman in the Flight Research Division received credit as an author of a research report.  Johnson calculated the trajectory of astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight.  By the time astronaut John Glenn was about to orbit Earth in his 1962 Friendship 7 mission, NASA started using IBM computers. But they were prone to blackouts and hiccups at that time.  Astronauts were wary to trust them.  Astronaut John Glenn personally requested that Johnson be the one to check the IBM computer’s calculations for the trajectory of his space capsule.  “If she says they’re good,” Johnson remembers Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.”  Johnson did so and Glenn’s spaceflight, America’s first manned orbital mission, was a success.  Johnson worked on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, mankind’s first spaceflight that landed astronauts on the moon.  Johnson performed calculations that were critical to its success.  Johnson had a long career at NASA.  She also worked on projects for the Space Shuttle, the Earth Resources Resources Technology Satellite and authored or coauthored 26 research reports.

 

Johnson received many awards.  Among them included the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honor), the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement Awards.  She also received the Silver Snoopy Award for her outstanding contributions to human spaceflight safety.  Johnson was also named Mathematician of the Year in 1997 by the National Technical Association.

 

Johnson often spoke with children about her extraordinary career.  She encouraged students to work hard and to keep studying.  In speaking with them, Johnson also made sure students knew of the career opportunities that could be found through science and math.

 

Video Courtesy NASA

Sources:

 

  • “Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM” (2020) NASA

  • “She was a Computer when Computers Wore Skirts” (2008) NASA

  • “Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count” (2015) NASA

  • “Katherine Johnson Biography” (2020) NASA

  • “Who was Katherine Johnson?” (2020) NASA

  • ““NASA Celebrates Katherine Johnson with Building Named in Her Honor” (2016) NASA

Images of Pillars of Creation, Future Mars Base, Curiosity Rover, Milky Way, Moon, and International Space Station are courtesy of NASA. Image of Earth's atmosphere courtesy of Science Museum of Exploration.