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Katherine Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on the 26th of August, 1918, in West Virginia, US. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father a farmer. She was an American mathematician who worked at NASA for over 30 years and had calculated the flight paths for many spacecraft, long before any of today’s technology was developed. Her work helped ensure astronauts made it safely to the moon and back and without her, it is doubtful that Neil Armstrong would have been the first human to step onto the moon’s surface.
As a young girl Katherine’s high intelligence was clear and her skills with numbers apparent. In her hometown of White Sulfur Springs, because of the segregated school system, black students couldn’t progress further than 6th grade. Because of this, her father moved the family to a town called Institute 125 miles away, also in West Virginia. Here, the rules were different, so her and her siblings could receive a full education. Something which Johnson thrived in, she greatly enjoyed her education, as she expressed when talking to The Associated Press in 1999, “I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry.” She progressed through school quickly and had started to attend high school at only 10 years old and graduated from West Virginia State College at age 18, with bachelor degrees in mathematics and French.
She knew that finding a job was going to be difficult and unsurprisingly for the time, there were negligible research opportunities for young female black mathematicians. She was able to secure a teaching job and moved to Virginia. However, in 1940, she was chosen to be one of the first African American students to enroll in a grad position at West Virginia University, the all white institution in Morgantown. It was there where she studied for her masters in mathematics. She then left that position once she married James Gable and became pregnant with her first child. She was then occupied with teaching, motherhood and married life for over a decade. Gable died in 1956 and 3 years later she married James Johnson, hence Katherine Johnson.
In 1952 Johnson heard that NASA was hiring black women as mathematicians and she joined at Langley. If you have seen the Academy Award nominated film ‘Hidden Figures’ (if you haven’t then I strongly recommend watching it) then you’ll be aware that she was among a group of women who were described as the ‘human calculators’, who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA aka NASA today). These women worked in the West Area Computing unit and were also known as the ‘West Computers’. They manually performed complex mathematical calculations for the program’s engineers and analysed test data, providing mathematical computations that were essential to the success of the early US space program. At this time, NACA was segregated and these women had to use separate dining facilities and bathrooms. This finally changed in 1958 when NACA became NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which banned segregation.
Johnson was ‘borrowed’ by the Flight Research Division only two weeks into her job. This division occupied a huge hangar on the Langley grounds. She was the only black member of staff and she quickly demonstrated that she had an invaluable asset. She helped calculate the aerodynamic forces on airplanes. She had an interview with the Fayetteville Observer in 2010 and said, “The guys all had graduate degrees in mathematics; they had forgotten all the geometry they ever knew…I still remembered mine.” She stayed in this division for the rest of her career.
In 1960 Johnson wrote a paper, with one of the group’s engineers, about calculations for sending a spacecraft into orbit. This was the first time that a woman in her unit received credit as an author of a research paper. This was one of the 26 research reports she had credit for in her career.
NASA’s Mercury Program
Johnson played an important role in NASA’s Mercury program. She calculated the path for ‘Freedom 7’ in 1961. This was the aircraft that made Alan B. Shepard Jr the first US astronaut in space. In 1962 Johnson had verified, at the request of John Glenn, that the electronic computer had planned his flight correctly. Glen then made history on ‘Friendship 7’ as he was the first US astronaut to orbit Earth.
Apollo 11 Mission
Johnson also contributed to the Apollo 11 mission of 1969. She was a part of the team that calculated when and where to launch the rocket that sent the first three men to the moon.
Johnson also worked on the space shuttle mission.
Katherine Johnson retired from NASA in 1986, aged 68.
Johnson has received many awards and honours for her work. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Obama said that “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
In 2016 NASA named a building after her, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Also in 2016, Margot Lee Shetterly published her book ‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’. This book is about the ‘West Computers’ which included Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. The film ‘Hidden Figures’ was based on this book and was also released in 2016.
In 1969 the Apollo astronauts were awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal. This award is given for achievement in research, discovery and exploration. Finally, in 2020, at the age of 101, Katherine Johnson was selected as the 2020 recipient of the medal. Even though she wasn’t physically exploring space herself, without her there may not have been any exploration at all. It took a while for her and her colleagues to be celebrated, but at last, the excellent work that made many missions possible is being recognised.
In 2021 Katherine Johnson’s memoir, ‘My Remarkable Journey’, that she had written with her daughters Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, was published. Johnson had three daughters, Joylette, Katherine and Constance. Sadly Constance died in 2010. Joylette and Katherine both followed in their mother’s footsteps and became mathematicians. Joylette started working for NASA in 1962 once she graduated from Hampton University. Katherine Moore had a career as a maths teacher and counsellor for over 33 years. They both have expressed how fearless their mother was and how she had told them to “be assertive, not aggressive. You know, you don’t have to make too much noise, just do what you have to do.” Johnson’s daughters added, “people ask if John Glenn, or the astronauts, knew mom, I think they knew of her. They knew her reputation, but there probably was no more respect than that because when the day was over, they went into their white world. We went into our world. We had everything we needed except money and opportunity.”
Although unfortunately at the time Johnson was majorly overlooked, her work has opened the doors for others and inspired so many people to this day. She helped lay the foundations for female astronauts such as Christina Koch, who, alongside crewmate Jessica Meir, made the first all-female space walk in 2019. Koch has said, “When I think about my experiences and those of Katherine Johnson, I am completely in awe. She overcame so much more overt prejudice, so many more challenges than I was ever faced with. But what I see as similarities is that we were both motivated by a true love for what we saw as our calling.”
Katherine Johnson died on the 24th of February 2020 at 101 years old. Her legacy continues to influence people, notably women and people of colour, across the world to enter STEM fields and in general to reach for the moon.
“She helped send Apollo to the moon. Now she’s receiving the same medal the astronauts accepted 51 years ago”. Toole, T. Oct 2020
“Katherine Johnson dies at 101; mathematician broke barriers at NASA”. Fox, M. July 2020
“Katherine Johnson: pioneering NASA mathematician”. Stauss, J. Feb 2020
“Katherine Joihnson, NASA mathematician and an inspiration for ‘Hidden Figures,’ dies”. Lewis, R. Feb 2020
“Katherine Johnson obituary”. Fountain, N. Feb 2020