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Black History Month: Katherine Johnson – NASA Scientist

October is Black History Month, and we’re celebrating by showcasing brilliant diverse men and women who were influential in technology and digital development.

This week, as it is also World Space Week, we celebrate Katherine Johnson, who performed the complex calculations that enabled humans to successfully achieve space flight.

Her story is told in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, loosely based on the book ‘Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly – if you haven’t watched the film or read the book yet, we thoroughly recommend them.

Katherine Coleman becomes Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She enrolled at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) in Institute, West Virginia. At just 18, she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French. The following year, Katherine became one of three students to desegregate West Virginia University's graduate school in Morgantown, but she never herself finished the programme there, as she became pregnant with her first child.

Beginning in the late 1930s, she taught math and French at schools in Virginia and West Virginia. Then, in 1952, Katherine learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African American women to serve as "computers", which meant people who performed and checked calculations for technological developments. Katherine applied, and the following year she was accepted for a position at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

After only two weeks, Katherine was transferred from the African American computing pool to Langley's flight research division, where she talked her way into meetings and earned additional responsibilities. In 1958, after NACA was reformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Katherine was one of a group of people tasked with determining how to get a human into space and back. The following year she married decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson and became Katherine Johnson.

The Space Calculations

For Katherine Johnson, calculating space flight came down to the basics of geometry. When NASA wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to work out when it should start. Katherine told them: 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' As a result, the task of plotting the path for Alan Shepard's 1961 journey to space, the first in American history, fell on her shoulders.

The next challenge was to send a man in orbit around Earth. This involved far more difficult calculations, to account for the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies, and by then NASA had begun using electronic computers. But to complete the job, Katherine Johnson was still summoned to check the work of the machines, providing the go-ahead to propel John Glenn into successful orbit in 1962.

While the work of electronic computers became more important at NASA, Katherine remained highly valuable for her incredible accuracy. She performed calculations for the historic 1969 Apollo 11 trip to the moon, and the following year, when Apollo 13 experienced a malfunction in space, her contributions to contingency procedures helped ensure its safe return.

Katherine continued to serve as a key asset for NASA, helping to develop its Space Shuttle program and Earth Resources Satellite, until her retirement in 1986.

Celebrating Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was honoured with an array of awards for her ground-breaking work. Among them are the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award, and the National Technical Association’s designation as its 1997 Mathematician of the Year. More than 75 years after she dropped out of graduate school, Johnson also received an honourary doctorate degree from West Virginia University.

In November 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Then, in September 2017, 99-year-old Johnson was honored by NASA, with the dedication of a new research building which is named after her — the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Johnson sadly passed away on February 24, 2020. She was 101 years old.

“The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”
—Katherine Johnson

Check out these books to read more:

‘Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly

‘My Remarkable Journey – A Memoir’ by Katherine Johnson

‘Reaching for the Moon – The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson’ by Katherine Johnson


Image of Katherine Johnson from NASA: