Katherine Johnson, Mathematician, and Spaceflight Analyst
Portrait of Katherine Johnson
“If you can see one, you can be one.” Maybe you have heard that recently. If young people have an opportunity to see someone who looks like them in an activity or profession, they are much more likely to aspire to preparing themselves for that activity. Many of us in our profession were thrilled a few years ago to learn that there was a movie released, Hidden Figures, about three mathematicians in the dawn of the space age. That the mathematicians were female and African American was more than exciting.
Katherine Johnson was one of the women who pioneered in the new space age; it was not her first experience with breaking boundaries. She did that several times before she became involved with the space industry. She was born in West Virginia in 1918. She excelled in mathematics and, at the age of 13, was promoted to a high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. A few years later, she graduated from the College itself with the highest honors. In 1939, she was selected to quietly integrate the graduate program of West Virginia University, the state’s premier institution, along with two black men. She did not complete a graduate degree because she found that childrearing duties left little time for study as so many women do. She returned to teaching when time permitted, and in 1952 she learned about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. She spent the next four years analyzing data from flight tests and, in 1957, provided some of the math for engineers in the Space Task Group and NACA's first foray into space travel.
When NACA became NASA later that year, Johnson came along and did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight by Alan Shepard. Two years later, she co-authored a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight, one that would become NASA’s orbital mission of John Glenn.
The orbital flight's complexity had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations and IBM computers around the world. The computers had been programmed to control the trajectory of Glenn’s mission from liftoff to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of trusting the computers with their lives. Consequently, before the flight, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to do the calculations by hand, on her desktop calculator. He said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s successful flight put the United States in first place in space exploration.
Katherine considered among her most significant contributions to space exploration the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo's Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. She died five years later at the age of 101.
Recently, Northrop Grumman named their latest spacecraft after Johnson, whose work at NASA quite literally launched Americans into space. In addition, NASA named two facilities after her: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
NASA. (2020, February 24). Katherine Johnson Biography. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography/
Robb Report (2021, February 3). Legendary NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Now Has a Spacecraft Named After Her. https://robbreport.com/motors/aviation/nasa-mathematician-katherine-johnson-spacecraft-1234595014/