American Mathematician, Space Travel Mathematician

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Johnson is known as a legendary NASA mathematician and was NASA’s first Black scientist. Even at a young age, Johnson had a unique relationship with numbers. She saw numbers all around her and counted everything in her path.

Johnson became so advanced in math that she skipped seven grades and started high school at just 10 years old. At age 18, she graduated from West Virginia State with the highest honors and with degrees in both mathematics and French.

In 1953, Johnson began working at NACA’s (NASA) Langley Laboratory in the segregated, all-Black West Area Computing Unit. During this time, women did not get the same opportunities as men, and Black woman had double the restrictions. Johnson, however, did not allow those unfair rules to keep her from striving for her full potential. She continued to assert herself by being a reliable and error-free human computer. Her knowledge of analytic geometry kept her close to the most important work, allowing her to transcend prejudices to do the unthinkable and work alongside the men. She became the first NASA woman to gain access to men-only meetings, and she became the first woman to be credited with authorship of her research report.

In 1961, Johnson started doing the work that she would be most known for, calculating flight paths, first for Alan’s Freedom 7, NASA’s first human spaceflight mission. When NASA started using electronic computers to calculate the path for John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, Glenn didn’t trust the computer’s calculation. So, he refused to take flight unless Johnson — a Black woman who was first seen as an employee with less ability to contribute than a man — checked the computer’s work, manually.

In 1969, she helped with calculating the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.

For the Apollo 13 mission, the others focused solely on getting the crew to the moon, but when the mission had to be aborted, it was Johnson’s work on charts and backup procedures that set a path for the crew’s safe return to Earth.

Ultimately, NASA honored Katherine Johnson’s legacy and contributions by naming one if its Langley Laboratory Buildings, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the highest civilian honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by then-President Barack Obama. In 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Katherine Johnson transitioned from the physical realm February 24, 2020. She lived to be 101 years old. Rest in Power!