March 2020

Katherine Johnson, a “Hidden Figure” in American History

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematicianKatherine Johnson, NASA mathematician

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician
This photograph shows Katherine Johnson at her desk at the Langley Research Center with a “celestial training device,” a globe inside a globe that showed the key coordinates for navigating an orbit around Earth.

Katherine Johnson, who worked as a mathematician for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for many years, died on February 24, 2020, at 101 years old. Her mathematical calculations dealing with the motion of rockets and other spacecraft helped make NASA’s manned space flights possible. She lived a long and interesting life, full of challenges and amazing accomplishments.

Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was the youngest child in her family. From an early age, she was very strong in the subject of mathematics. After graduating from high school at age 14, she started attending West Virginia State, a historically black college. There she took all of the math classes the college offered. She graduated at age 18, summa cum laude, which is Latin for “with highest honor.” She earned a degree in mathematics and French. Johnson was also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first college sorority founded by African American women. Soon after college, she became a teacher at a black public school in Marion, Virginia.

In 1953, early research into space exploration meant there was an opening for African American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department. Before electronic computers were widely used, many women worked as “human computers” who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand. After spending years as a teacher, stay-at-home mom, and graduate school student, Johnson had found the perfect opportunity for her amazing math skills.

The Langley Research Center, which later became part of NASA, first started hiring women to work as computers in 1935. During World War II, the research center expanded to also hire African American women to do this work. The shortage of workers during the war opened up new opportunities for African Americans, who often faced discrimination when looking for jobs.

As part of her work as a computer, Johnson calculated the path for astronaut Alan Shepard’s famous mission. On May 5, 1961, he became the first American to travel into space. After NASA began using electronic computers, astronaut John Glenn asked that Johnson check all the calculations before his flight on the Friendship 7. Johnson’s calculations were also important to the success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing and the start of the Space Shuttle program. After working for 33 years at Langley and NASA, she retired in 1986. She said she loved going to work every day.

If it wasn’t for the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements, many people might not have known about Johnson and other African American female computers. In 2015, even more people became aware of Johnson’s achievements when President Barack Obama awarded her America’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the following year, Johnson’s story along with two other notable African American women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, was told in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly called Hidden Figures. A film based on the book was released that same year. Both the book and the movie were very popular and won many awards. More importantly, they shared the story of women who otherwise might have been forgotten in American history. After hearing the sad news of Johnson’s passing, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said, “She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

Image credit: ©Cover Images via AP

Related Link

Question 1
What subject did Katherine Johnson excel in from an early age?

Question 2
What award did Katherine Johnson receive in 2015?

Rate this story:
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars