Katherine Johnson is an African-American mathematician . She worked for NASA and her orbital calculations were critical to the U.S. manned space flights. Her critical life’s work was chronicled in the highly acclaimed film “Hidden Figures” based upon the book of the same name.
Born with a natural gift for numbers.
Katherine excelled in school, graduating from high school at fourteen and at eighteen she completed her undergraduate studies at West Virginia State College. In 1939, she was chosen as one of three (and the only female) black students to enter graduate studies at the College. Mrs. Johnson decided a year later to leave school. She and go back to teaching, because she wanted to raise her three daughters with husband James Goble. It wasn’t until 1952 that she looked for and was accepted to a job at the West Area Computing. This was an all-black section of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. It is here that she began what became a lifetime of incredible achievements.
Working at Langley as a ‘computer who wore skirts’.
For the first few years of her work at NACA’s Langley Laboratory, she worked with a group of women dubbed “computers who wore skirts”. These women analyzed the computations from airplane black boxes. They also deciphered other mathematical tasks. These computer pools existed until 1958, but dissolved when NASA switched to digital computers.
Recovering from the death of her husband John from cancer in 1956, she found solace in working at NACA. In 1957 following the Sputnik launch, Katherine Johnson’s life, and that of the American Space Program, changed swiftly and dramatically. Ms. Johnson’s mathematics were included in a publication “Notes on Space Technology”. This was a collection of lectures, given for Flight Division Research. It is thought that her contribution launched her into the spotlight at what would soon become NASA.
From 1958 to 1986 Katherine Johnson worked at NASA as an aerospace technologist.
Her accomplishments during her tenure there were wide and varied. In 1960 with engineer Ted Skopinski, Mrs. Johnson co-wrote a document that goes into detail about the parameters of space flight. The document included and most importantly, specified the landing position of the spacecraft. Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position became a very important document because of the mathematics within it. They laid the groundwork for some of her most important work at NASA.
Her mathematic computations were key to discovering the trajectory analysis and launch window of the May 1961 Freedom 7 mission. This was the first flight of Project Mercury, where Alan Shepard became the first human in space flight.
The advent of digital computers in no way made Katherine Johnson obsolete.
In 1962, John Glenn was scheduled for his orbital mission around the Earth. Mrs. Johnson was well known at NASA for her computations. In fact, Glenn requested personally that she look over the computer’s computations for his Friendship 7 mission. The computer system was both new and complex. It required a global networking of computers to project the trajectories needed for the mission. Glenn insisted that Johnson run the numbers through her own machine before the mission was finalized.
“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
– John Glen, Astronaut
Other mission she worked on were Apollo 11 and 13. Her work was instrumental in helping get the Astronauts of Apollo 13 home safely.
Considered by many to be better than the digital computers, Mrs. Johnson’s work with computers helped the company’s confidence grow. She worked diligently to learn how the new computers worked. She train others and stove to make certain that the computers were accurate and effective.
Throughout her continued career at NASA she worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite.
After 36 years at Langley, Katherine Johnson retired in 1986. In 2015 at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom from . Her impact resonates with many each and every day.
Katherine and her husband James Johnson (married in 1959) were together for 60 years. They have 6 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren and she spend her last years enjoying time with them. Katherine Johnson passed away on 24 February 2020 at the age of 102. She will continue to inspire all of us with her strength, determination and courage.
Galen & RoseAnna
The Researcher’s Gateway
Other African-American Women of interest for Black History Month
- Rebecca Davis Lee Coleman, MD. – First African-American Woman Physician (1834)
- Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman – First African-American and Native American Woman to get her pilot’s license.
- Octavia Butler – African-American Science Fiction Author
- Althea Gibson – African-American Tennis Player and Golfer