Katherine Johnson

Alan Shepard became the second man and the first American to go to space when he piloted the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission into space on 5 May, 1961. John Glenn followed a few months later when on 20 Feb, 1962, he piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission to three complete orbits around the Earth. These flights, among several others, were the necessary testing and training precursors to the Apollo moon-landing missions already in the planning stages. Apollo 11 was the culmination of years of work, when American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to set foot on the Moon on 20 July, 1969. What is the common thread between all three of these monumental events? Katherine Johnson.

A young Katherine Johnson. Source: Katherine Johnson via NASA
A young Katherine Johnson. Image from NASA.

Born on 26 Aug, 1918 in White Sulphur Spring, West Virginia, the daughter of a school teacher mother and farmer/janitor father, Katherine showed an interest in numbers and counting from an early age. She graduated from West Virginia State High School at 14, then went straight to college and earned her B.S. in French and Mathematics in 1934 from West Virginia State University.

 

Despite her obvious intelligence and aptitude for mathematics and physics, family issues and the social setting of the time kept her from advancing in her education and career, and she took a job teaching math to schoolchildren in Virginia and W. Virginia. At a family gathering some time in the early 1950s, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) was specifically looking for black women to work as human “computers” to verify engineering calculations. She applied for the job but the quota had been met for the year. She applied again the next year and started working in 1953. She had only been there a few days when she was assigned to the Guidance and Control Branch. Her naturally inquisitive nature led to her asking many questions, something that was unheard of from the other “computers” in the pool. But she wanted to learn and know the “hows” and “whys” behind the numbers. She began attending the briefings and became a familiar face. Her excellent work also led to her being recognized as a leader in her field and she became increasingly involved in the planning stages. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy challenged the country in 1962 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, she became part of the team. Her work in the Guidance and Control Branch, and her remarkable affinity for spatial geometry resulted in her hand calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s mission in 1961.

 

Later, when John Glenn’s Atlas vehicle was set for launch, his flight trajectory had been processed with a computer, which spit out the data in a relatively short time. Computers had been used by the military and government for well over 20 years by this point, thanks in large part to the groundbreaking work of Grace Hopper. But by today’s standards they were no more than pocket calculators and people still had trouble trusting them. John Glenn insisted that Mrs. Johnson run the same calculations by hand, which she did over the next day and a half. She of course came back with the exact same result as the computer, and he became the first American to orbit the Earth. When NASA shifted focus to the Apollo program, Mrs. Johnson was again called on the calculate the trajectory to get the astronauts to the moon and back.

 

Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite. She co-authored 26 scientific papers, though in the 1960s and 70s, the standard practice was to not include female contributors as formal co-authors, so it is significant that her name appears on any peer-reviewed NASA reports. She has also received numerous awards, among them numerous honorary Ph.Ds from various universities, several NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement awards, the Apollo Group Achievement Award (which included one of only 300 flags carried on board Apollo 11 to the moon), and the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award.

Many women worked with Mrs. Johnson in the "computer" pool at Langley. LtR: Christine Darden, Katherine Johnson, Janet Stephens, Katherine Smith and Sharon Stack. Souce: NASA
Many women worked with Mrs. Johnson in the “computer” pool at Langley. Left to right: Christine Darden, Katherine Johnson (seated), Janet Stephens, Katherine Smith and Sharon Stack. Image from NASA.

Mrs. Johnson is currently enjoying retirement at her home in Virginia with her husband, three daughters, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

 

Many resources are available for more information regarding Katherine Johnson’s life and career, including a very good short video documentary series by Makers.com.

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