Pioneering Mathematician & NASA Trailblazer
Katherine Johnson, born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was a trailblazing mathematician and physicist, whose groundbreaking work at NASA significantly contributed to the success of the United States’ early space missions. Despite facing racial and gender barriers, Johnson’s extraordinary mathematical skills and determination propelled her to become a key figure, in the space race and an inspiration for generations to come.
From an early age, Katherine Johnson displayed an exceptional aptitude for mathematics. Growing up in a segregated society, where educational opportunities for African Americans were limited, Johnson’s academic prowess stood out. Recognizing her talent, her family and teachers supported her educational pursuits.
In 1937, Johnson graduated Summa cum Laude with degrees in Mathematics and French from West Virginia State College. Her early career saw her teaching at historically black schools, but it was her role at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA, that would change the course of her life and contribute to the nation’s space exploration achievements.
Johnson joined NACA in 1953 as a “computer” – a term used for individuals who performed complex mathematical calculations by hand. During an era when electronic computers were in their infancy, human computers played a critical role in scientific research and engineering. Johnson’s mathematical acumen quickly earned her a reputation for precision and accuracy.
Her breakthroughs came to the fore during Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States. As a woman of color working in a predominantly white and male environment, Johnson faced institutional racism, and gender bias. Despite these challenges, she played a crucial role in calculating trajectories and orbital mechanics, contributing to the success of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, in 1961.
Katherine Johnson’s influence expanded with subsequent missions, including John Glenn’s historic orbital flight in 1962. Glenn, a pioneering astronaut, specifically requested that Johnson verify the electronic computer’s calculations before he would trust the mission. Johnson’s work reassured Glenn, solidifying her reputation as an indispensable asset to the space program.
As technology advanced, Johnson’s role evolved. She played a pivotal part in the Apollo program, helping to calculate trajectories for the lunar missions. Her meticulous calculations were instrumental in the successful Apollo 11 mission, which achieved the first human landing on the Moon in 1969.
Katherine Johnson’s legacy extends beyond her mathematical contributions. Her resilience and determination to excel in a field dominated by white males inspired future generations of African American women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Johnson’s impact was acknowledged in 2015 when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Her life’s story gained widespread recognition with the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures in 2016, which highlighted the contributions of Johnson and other African American women mathematicians at NASA. The book was later adapted into a critically acclaimed film with the same title, bringing Johnson’s achievements to a broader audience.
Katherine Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101. Her legacy lives on in the advancements she contributed to space exploration, the doors she opened for women and minorities in STEM fields, and the inspiration she continues to provide to those who dream of reaching for the stars.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
NASA. (2017). Katherine Johnson Biography.
Shetterly, M. L. (2016). Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow.
National Women’s History Museum. (n.d.). Katherine Johnson.