Katherine Johnson is a physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to America’s aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA.
Her courage and perseverance helped to lead the way for both women and African-Americans in technical fields.
Graduating high school at 14, Johnson received her B.S. degree in French and mathematics in 1934 from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). At that time, Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the 3rd African American to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics, created a special course in analytic geometry specifically for Johnson.
In 1940, she attended West Virginia University to obtain a graduate degree. Johnson was one of the 1st African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. However, family issues kept her from completing the required courses.
After college, Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia.
In June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center. At first she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual `[computers] who wore [skirts].’ Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that,’they forgot to return me to the pool.’ While the racial and genderbarriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.
At NASA, Johnson started work in the all-male Flight Mechanics Branch and later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the 1st American in space, in 1959 and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts forastronauts in case of electronic failures.
In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer’s numbers. Ms. Johnson later worked directly with real computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.
Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
?In total, Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers, of which only one can now be found. The practice in 1960 would have been not to list the female Computers as formal co-authors, so that she was listed as an author in a peer-reviewed NASA report is significant:
“NASA TND-233, “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position” 1960. Authors: T.H. Skopinski, Katherine G. Johnson”
?Johnson’s social impact as a pioneer in space science andcomputing may be seen both from the honors she has received and the number of times her story is presented as a role model.
?Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Johnson’s biography has had an honored place in lists of African-Americans in Science and Technology.
?In an era when race and gender held back many, Johnson’s courage, perseverance, and talent helped her to succeed. The continuing need for historical success models for both women and African-Americans makes Johnson particularly important.