For her exceptional calculations during the US space programs that brought the first humans to the Moon.
"The whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write to them."
— Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918. From a young age, she exhibited a remarkable talent for mathematics and skipped several grades in school, beginning high school at only 10 years old. Following her graduation at age 14, she enrolled at West Virginia State College, a historically black university in Institute, West Virginia. She mastered every mathematics course offered at the college and several specialty courses were added specifically for her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in both mathematics and French.
Following her graduation, Johnson began teaching at a public school in Marion, Virginia. After marrying in 1939, she left teaching and enrolled at West Virginia University, the first African-American woman to enroll at the graduate level at the university. She left the program after a year to start a family, eventually raising three daughters.
Johnson still wanted to pursue a career in mathematics, and in 1953 she secured a job at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. Initially, Katherine was part of an all-woman team that performed mathematical analysis on data collected from flight tests and the black boxes of airplanes. Johnson referred to the group as “computers who wore skirts.” Her advanced understanding of analytical geometry led to her assignment at the Maneuver Loads branch of the Flight Research Division of NACA.
NACA was renamed National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in 1958, and Johnson became an aerospace technologist within NASA’s Spacecraft Controls branch. In 1960 she coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, an important report that laid out the equations for determining landing position for orbital spaceflight. In 1961 she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Earth orbital mission.
In 1962 Johnson famously calculated the trajectory for the Friendship 7 orbital flight of John Glenn. Glenn and some of the other astronauts were wary of entrusting their lives to equations run on electronic computers. Glenn specifically asked for Johnson to perform the calculations that had been run on the computers. Using a desktop mechanical calculator, Johnson confirmed the numbers from the computer. After her confirmation, Glenn said “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Johnson helped calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission that delivered the first humans to the lunar surface. She also provided equations that turned out to be essential to the survival of the Apollo 13 mission after it was forced to abort. She remained with NASA through 1986, working on the space shuttle and Earth Resource Satellite programs.
Katherine Johnson is often seen as one of the most significant figures to represent women in science and technology and was one of the women profiled in the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book inspired an Oscar-nominated film of the same name released in 2016. She has received many honors for her work with NASA, including the National Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama, in 2015.