The Online Library of Knowledge

Famous women

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson in 1966Katherine Johnson in 1966Katherine Johnson (born 1918) is an African American mathematician who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She performed the accurate calculations and analysed the data needed for space flights, which today would be done by computers. Katherine also played a crucial role in many important moments at the start of space exploration. These included mission Freedom 7 in 1961, the first American manned space flight, and Apollo 11 in 1969, the first time man walked on the Moon. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in recognition for her role as a pioneering African American woman in science. She celebrated her 100th birthday on 26th August 2018.


White Sulphur Springs, where Katherine was bornWhite Sulphur Springs, where Katherine was born

Early life

Katherine Johnson (then Coleman) was born on the 26th August 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia, the youngest of four children. Already brilliant at maths, Katherine was admitted to High School at West Virginia State College, which offered schooling to African American students, at the age of 10. Katherine graduated four years early, aged 14. She was then admitted to West Virginia State College itself, where she took every maths course offered, including new ones that were added for her by one of her mentors, Professor Claytor. She graduated in 1937 with degrees in both Mathematics and French, aged just 18—once again, four years early.
 

West Virginia UniversityWest Virginia University

After graduating, Katherine began teaching at a black public school in Marion, Virginia. In 1939, she was one of only three African American students, and the only African American woman, to be admitted as graduate students to West Virginia University as part of its move to integrate black students. Whilst there, she enrolled on a graduate maths programme. However, she fell pregnant after a year and left to raise a family with her first husband, James Goble.




The mission statement of NACAThe mission statement of NACA

Mathematician

In 1952, a family member told Katherine that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were hiring mathematicians. She was offered a job at the Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, in 1953. Her task was, initially as part a "pool" of other women, to analyse data from the flight recorders in planes. They did complex calculations manually that would, years later, be done by computers. Her work was then used to solve problems with flights.

Katherine stood out. As she later recalled: “the [other] women … didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why.” She was soon transferred to the all-male flight research team at the Guidance and Control Division. It was at this time, in 1956, that her husband died from cancer. Three years later she married her second husband, Jim Johnson.



 

Breaking boundaries

At the time Katherine was working for NACA, and later NASA, African Americans faced prejudice and segregation in the United States. During her time at NACA, Katherine and other African Americans worked separately from their white colleagues. This was in line with laws on segregation in the workplace that existed at the time. They also had to eat separately, and use different toilets. When NACA was replaced by NASA, this segregation ended and Katherine’s work was integrated with that of her white colleagues.

Katherine with some of her former NASA colleaguesKatherine with some of her former NASA colleagues

Katherine also succeeded in breaking some of the boundaries placed on her as an African American woman. In 1960, she co-authored a report with Tom Skopinski on landing sites for orbital space flights. When Skopinski left to move to Houston, Katherine finished the report and received credit for it—something never before achieved by a woman in the Flight Research Division. Katherine has since said “I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”


The launch of Apollo 13 in 1970The launch of Apollo 13 in 1970

NASA 

In 1958, NASA replaced NACA and introduced electronic computers, which took over Katherine’s old role. She started working as an aerospace technologist, working out how to get people to and from space, as part of the US space programme. She worked behind the scenes, plotting back-up navigation charts in case of electronic failures.

When the 1970 Apollo 13 mission to the Moon, crippled by an explosion, was aborted, Katherine’s work ensured the crew’s safe return to Earth. As Katherine said, “everyone was concerned about getting them there. We were concerned about getting them back.”



Buzz Aldrin walking on the MoonBuzz Aldrin walking on the Moon


During her time at NASA, Katherine worked on a number of historic space missions. For example, for the 1961 Freedom 7 mission, the first US human space flight, Katherine used the predicted flight path to work out where Alan Shepard's capsule would land. She also calculated the flight path for Apollo 11 in 1969. During this mission, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. Katherine also worked on plans for a future space flight to Mars. She retired in 1986, having worked for NACA and NASA for 33 years.



John GlennJohn Glenn

John Glenn

At NASA, Katherine was well known for the accuracy of her work. In 1962, NASA started to use computers to calculate flight paths for their spacecraft, starting with the first US attempt to orbit the Earth, to be piloted by astronaut John Glenn. The computers' calculations had to take into account exactly how the Earth’s gravity would affect the spacecraft’s flight. Wary of relying on machines for his personal safety, Glenn requested that Katherine do the same calculations as the computers before he agreed to fly. By verifying the machines' results, Katherine gave astronauts like Glenn confidence in the new technology.

 
 

A NASA Silver Snoopy Award pin.A NASA Silver Snoopy Award pin.

Legacy and honours

Over the course of her career, Katherine authored or co-authored 26 scientific papers. Her work still influences space transport today. Her contributions to the fields of computing and space science, despite the challenges she faced as an African American woman, made her a role model for others who came after her. As a reflection of this, West Virginia State College named her Outstanding Alumnus of the Year 1999. In 2016, NASA named a new building at the Langley Research Centrer where she worked after Katherine. In the same year, she was presented with the Silver Snoopy award, given to NASA employees who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission successes.

Katherine receiving her Presidential Medal of FreedomKatherine receiving her Presidential Medal of FreedomKatherine received her greatest recognition in the form of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for which she was cited as a pioneering African American woman in science. It was awarded to her on the 24th November 2015 by President Barack Obama. This is the highest honour that can be awarded to American civilians. 

Katherine Johnson and her colleagues were portrayed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Katherine was played by Taraji P. Henson, and she attended the 89th Academy Awards alongside her. 







 

Before the development of electronic computers, the word "computer" meant a person, not a machine. At NACA, Katherine Johnson and her colleagues were referred to as the "computer pool".

© 2018 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile