Black History Month: Space Pioneer Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician with genius-level skills whose work as a “computer” at NASA enabled the first Americans to travel into space and return safely.

Katherine Johnson

In college, Katherine took every mathematics course offered at the institution which included some courses that were developed specifically for her.  She graduated summa cum laude from the institution at 18.  After graduation, she worked as a public-school teacher in Marion, Virginia before ultimately deciding on a career as a research mathematician, a field that was typically beyond the opportunities available to Black people or women.  A fateful conversation during a family gathering led her to apply for work at what was then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor for NASA.  She was hired in 1953 and became a “Colored Computer” working in a pool with other Black women.

She was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.  She was originally christened Creola Katherine Coleman.  At an early age, Katherine demonstrated an exceptional intellect with a special aptitude for mathematics. She graduated high school at the age of 14 and enrolled at West Virginia State College, an HBCU College located in Institute, West Virginia.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to Johnson in 2015.

Later she became an aerospace technologist and was assigned to the Space Controls Branch where she calculated the trajectory for the first manned flight into space and later the launch window for the Mercury mission. When NASA first began to use electronic computers, John Glenn specifically asked for Johnson to manually verify the computer’s calculations before he would make his history-making flight into space and the first orbit of the earth. She also worked on the 1969 Apollo moon mission and later the Space Shuttle program. She retired from NASA in 1986.

Katherine Johnson has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2016 the Katherine Computational Research Facility was dedicated at NASA’ Langley Research Center. Her career along with some of the other Colored Computers was depicted in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures”.

 Katherine Johnson died in 2020 at the age of 101.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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