Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in August 1918, Katherine Johnson would go on to be one of the most important women in the history of NASA, a trailblazer for women and women of color who would follow her.
Johnson was a math prodigy from childhood, skipping several grades in elementary and middle school. By the time she was 13, she was attending high school, and when she turned 18, she began working toward her bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and French at West Virginia State College. After graduating in 1937, she started teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
In 1939, West Virginia began to integrate its graduate schools and the president of WVSC chose Johnson and two other black students to be offered an opportunity to attend West Virginia University. Johnson enrolled in the math program but soon after decided to leave and start a family with her husband. She had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine.
In 1952, a family member told her about the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later NASA) Langley laboratory. You may know about this part of Johnson’s life due to Hidden Figures, a movie that follows the story of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and the roles they played in putting John Glenn in space. Johnson began working under Vaughan in 1953 and was soon assigned to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. In December 1956, her husband died of cancer.
After the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched in 1957, Johnson began doing math for some projects concerning flight and pilotless aircraft research. From this group came the Space Task Group, a group of engineers that would later carry out trajectory analysis for mission Freedom 7, America’s first human space flight with Alan Shepard. Johnson was part of this group. Johnson was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited for a research report. In 1962, Johnson calculated all the equations for the Friendship 7 mission with John Glenn in order to make sure the computer’s calculations were correct, and the flight was a success and a turning point in the Space Race.
Overall, Johnson loved her career at NASA and would go on to do calculations for many more projects and flights and authoring or coauthoring many more research reports. In 1986, Johnson retired after 33 years and in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Katherine Johnson’s work at NASA’s Langley Research Center spanned 1953 to 1986 and included calculating the trajectory of the early space launches.
Johnson died on Feb. 24, 2020, at 101 years old. Today, we celebrate her contributions to NASA and the work she did as a woman and a mathematician. Let us always remember her words: “Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”