Katherine Johnson: The Black Woman Behind America’s Successful Space Missions

Last Updated on November 18, 2022

Although they usually have barriers in their profession, the world has been blessed with many powerful women. Women who challenged the status quo broke glass ceilings and contributed to changing the world. One woman who sits comfortably at this table is Katherine Johnson.

Popularly referred to as the “Human Computer,” Katherine Johnson broke several barriers and paved the way for many other women (not just black women) to follow suit. Originally, women and African-American were not allowed in the science and engineering field, but the efforts of this dynamic and trailblazing woman brought about a change that is being enjoyed to date.

Heard about Katherine Johnson? This is a detailed history of her life and career that could inspire even you! You’ll be proud to be black after this story and even prouder if you’re a woman.

Katherine Johnson - Credit: Getty Images
Katherine Johnson – Credit: Getty Images

Who was Katherine Johnson?

Born August 126, 1918, Katherine Johnson was an American Mathematician. She was one of the first Black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate school. She worked as a NASA mathematician, and her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and other US crewed spaceflights.

Johnson is one of the widely known ‘record-breaking’ Black women in the world; she pushed boundaries and overcame adversaries. She remains a source of inspiration to many.

Working under NASA, her duties included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury space flights. Katherine’s calculations were said to have been indispensable to the beginning of the Space Shuttle Program, meaning it might not have been a success without her contribution. Her tremendous mathematical prowess and ability to work with space trajectories during a time of little technology were astounding and awe-inspiring. Indeed, she was a ‘human computer’.

Katherine Johnson served for 33 years at NASA. During her career, she mastered complex manual calculations and used computers to perform tasks as a frontierswoman. Also, Katherine was one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.

Read: The Fascinating Life of Herbert Macaulay, a Nigerian Nationalist.

Katherine Johnson Counted Since She Was a Child

As one of the greatest mathematicians to walk the earth, there had to be something about her love for numbers. It started when she was only a child. Katherine once claimed she “counted everything.” From steps to dishes and basically everything.

Thankfully, her father, Joshua McKinley Coleman, quickly noticed his daughter’s affinity for numbers. So, he decided to nurture it. Segregation was at an all-time high during that period, so it wasn’t easy.

For example, Greenbrier County, where Katherine grew up, didn’t offer public schooling for African-American students beyond the eighth grade. They either drop out or go somewhere else, which could be more expensive. Her mother, Joylette Roberta, was a teacher while her father worked as a farmer, lumberman, and handyman, so there wasn’t exactly enough money for an expensive education.

However, the ambitious parents did their best to send Katherine and her three older siblings to high school Institute West Virginia.

Katherine Johnson Encyclopedia Britannica
Katherine Johnson. Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

She Shone All Through High School and College

Enrolled into high school at 10, Katherine’s academic performance was amazing. She skipped through grades and graduated at 14. Interestingly, she also left college at the age of 18.

Upon high school graduation at 14, Katherine Johnson joined WVSC and took every mathematical course offered. During her educational journey at WVSC, she had professors including Angie Turner King (Chemist and Mathematician) and W.W Schieffelin Claytor (third African-American to receive a doctorate in mathematics) mentor her.

She finally graduated in 1937 with degrees in mathematics and French. After graduation, she started teaching at a black public school in Marion, Virginia.

Making History at West Virginia University

Katherine Johnson was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. She also became one of three African-American students and the only woman selected to integrate the graduate school following the 1938 United States Supreme Court ruling in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v.

Then, Canada required states which provided public higher education to white students to provide it for black students. They could either establish black colleges and universities or admit black students to white-only universities.

Katherine Johnson Received a Presidential Honour Credit BBC
Katherine Johnson Received a Presidential Honour. Credit: BBC

Katherine Johnson Received a Presidential Honour

In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her legacy that had opened doors for several women who wanted careers in science and engineering.

There Is a Movie About Her

If you’re a lover of movies, then you need to watch her story in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson. The following year, NASA Langley Research Center named its new Computational Research Facility in her honor. Come 2019, she bagged the Congressional Gold Medal Award.

Katherine Johnson’s Stellar Career

After Katherine Johnson decided to take up Research Mathematics as a career, she found teaching jobs. Then in 1952, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians (both African-American and white mathematicians). In June 1953, she accepted a job offer from the agency.

From 1953 to 1958, Katherine Johnson worked as a computer. Afterward, she was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division which mostly had white male engineers as staff.

Fighting Racism at Her Workplace

Under President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, there were federal workplace segregation laws in the State of Virginia. This law required African-American women in the computing pool to work, eat, and do other stuff different from work in separate rooms. Their offices were also labeled “Colored Computers.’

However, all of these never moved Katherine Johnson. She confirmed this in an interview with WHRO-TV.

“I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

Katherine Johnson

Her Contributions Took the First American to Space

From 1958 until 1986, when she retired, Katherine Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist at the Spacecraft Controls Branch. During her career within these years, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

She also calculated the launch window for his (Alan Shepard) 1961 Mercury mission. Then, she strategically organized backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.

Katherine Johnson Credit CNN
Katherine Johnson at work. Credit: CNN

John Glenn Wouldn’t Fly Without Katherine’s Go-Ahead

Later, NASA used electronic computers (first attempt) to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth but surprisingly had to call on Katherine to verify the result the computer gave. This happened because John Glenn had insisted that Katherine verifies the results before he would fly. Eventually, she worked on the calculations and gave her verification.

Katherine Johnson’s works and ability at accuracy no doubt aided the established confidence in the new technology. Not too bad to reinstate that Katherine never worked with digital computers; she only started working with them around the year 1961, after she had set a great deal of reputation. Her work in 1961 helped ensure Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury capsule was found quickly after landing, using an accurate trajectory.

She Contributed to Apollo 11

In 1969, Katherine helped calculate the trajectory Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. The following year, she worked on the Apollo 13 Moon mission, and when the work was aborted, her backup procedures and charts helped the crew return to Earth.

Later on, Katherine worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and also worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

Katherine Johnson Was Married Twice

Katherine Johnson was first married to Francis Goble, with whom she had three daughters; Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. Unfortunately, James died of a brain tumor in 1956.

Three years later, Katherine re-married James A. “Jim” Johnson, a United States Army officer and veteran of the Korean war. Their union lasted 60 years, and their separation was only caused by the death of James in March 2019 at the age of 93.

Katherine Johnson had six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She was said to have encouraged her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology.

Katherine Johnson’s Death

On the 24th of February 2020, at 101, Katherine Johnson died at her retirement home in Newport News. An American hero never to be forgotten!

Her Legacy Lives On

In June 2019, George Mason University named the largest building on its SciTech campus after her (Katherine G. Johnson Hall). The following year which was the year of her death, Bethel School District, Washington, named its recently-built school the Katherine G. Johnson Elementary.

Fairfax County Public Schools renamed its middle school Katherine Johnson Middle School. San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento, California, also named its school Katherine Johnson Middle school.

On the 6th of November, 2022, the ÑuSat 15 or “Katherine”, COSPAR 2020-079G satellite was launched into space.

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