KAtherine G. Johnson
Born: 26 August, 1918 – white Sulphur Springs, United states of America
Known as: the mathematician behind many NASA missions
Katherine G. Johnson’s story is extraordinary on two levels: not only was she a woman working in STEM, in the world’s largest space exploration facility at the time, but she was a woman of colour. But, that is the fascinating detail through Katherine’s life – time after time, her life was host to myriad extraordinary moments. A curious and intelligent student, Katherine was already fascinated with numbers from a young age, and she quickly jumped grades ahead; she graduated at 14. At college – West Virginia State – she became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority created by and for African-American women. After graduating, she was hand selected as one of three black students, and the only woman among them, to integrate at its graduate school, West Virginia State. Her reputation as a mathematician preceded her. Katherine had, at 19, graduated with highest honours and had gone on to become a teacher. She quickly resigned her position and chose to study graduate mathematics.
After a semester studying, Katherine chose to defer, instead opting to start a family with her late husband, James Goble. By 1952, Katherine had returned to teaching, but another position quickly caught her eye: the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics laboratory. Here, Katherine shone, and continued her upward path into success – eventually, she would begin to complete calculations for 1958’s Notes on Space Technology, and would complete trajectory analysis for the monumental 1961 Freedom 7 Mission (or, America’s first human spaceflight).
In 1962, Katherine would make her name known by many in her field. At the time, computers were increasingly being used for calculations in space calculations, but unlike modern computers, they were not reliable – dropouts were dangerously common. When NASA prepared for John Glenn’s mission, astronauts (Glenn included) were hesitant to allow these computers to handle their lives. Glenn specifically requested that Katherine – or, as she recalls it, “the girl” – run the numbers by hand. “If she says they’re good,” Glenn said, “I’m ready to go.” The orbit made history, and Glenn becoming the first US astronaut to orbit earth. Katherine was also responsible for calculating the trajectory for the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969, and worked on the space shuttle program. She retired from NASA in 1986.
Katherine’s work with NASA built her reputation as a mastermind mathematician, able to handle the most complex of calculations with ease. She was essential to the Space Race, and responsible for bringing astronauts home safely after navigating often perilous conditions.
Outside of NASA, Katherine co-authored 26 papers, making significant contributions to the scientific community. She was acknowledged as a groundbreaker in African Americans contributing to science and technology, and as a pioneer of African American women in STEM. NASA awarded Katherine with their Silver Snoopy award in 2016, given to those who have “made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success”. Futhermore, she was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her contributions to space travel – the highest civilian honour in the United States. Her alma mater, West Virginia State, has established a scholarship in her name, and a life-size statue of her graces the campus.
Katherine continues to encourage women to become involved in STEM, and is a proud advocate for the work she completed. She was also recently portrayed in the successful film, Hidden Figures – a film she herself calls “excellent”. Katherine, now 99, lives in Hampton, Virginia, with her husband of almost 60 years, Jim Johnson.