David C. Bowman NASA, Langley
Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician whose calculations helped the US get an astronaut into orbit for the first time. She also played a crucial role in calculations for the first moon landing.
US astronaut John Glenn, who orbited Earth three times in 1962 before returning safely, famously insisted that the calculations behind his trajectory be double-checked by Johnson before he took off.
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Johnson excelled academically from an early age. She finished high school at the age of 14 and graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College with a double major in mathematics and French aged 18.
Following a brief stint working as a public school teacher, Johnson became the first African American woman admitted to graduate school at West Virginia University, enrolling in the graduate mathematics programme.
In 1953, Johnson started working at the all-Black West Area Computing section of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become the space agency NASA. In addition to the computing pool, the toilets and cafeteria at Langley were also racially segregated at the time. Johnson refused to use the “colored” toilets and ate lunch at her desk.
Within two weeks of working at Langley, Johnson’s talent landed her a position in the Flight Research Division. Over the next four years, she worked alongside aeronautical engineers analysing data from flight tests. At the same time, the space race between the US and the Soviet Union was heating up.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 – the first artificial Earth satellite – and in April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into space and orbit Earth. Meanwhile, at NACA (which had since become NASA), Johnson had been working on the trajectory analysis for the US’s first human space flight. In May 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first US citizen and second person in the world to go to space.
Less than a year later, NASA was preparing for the mission that would see Glenn become the first US astronaut to orbit Earth in February 1962. The agency was relying on a network of computers, programmed with orbital equations that would control the trajectory of Glenn’s capsule. As part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” – referring to Johnson – insisting that she run the numbers through the same equations by hand to check the computer’s calculations. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Johnson recalled the astronaut saying.
Johnson went on to join the Space Mechanics Division, where she calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon and worked on key calculations that helped synchronise the mission’s lunar lander with the moon-orbiting command and service module. Her work helped the US become the first country to land a person on the moon on 20 July 1969.
Johnson died in Newport News, Virginia, on 24 February 2020 at the age of 101.
During her career, Johnson authored multiple research papers and received numerous awards and accolades, including the 2015 US Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama. In 2016, NASA named a new computational research facility after her.
Johnson’s story was featured in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, as well as in the 2016 film of the same name. In the film, which tells the story of Johnson and two other African American women – Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who worked as NASA mathematicians during the space race, Johnson is portrayed by actor Taraji P. Henson.
Following the news of her death, the then NASA administrator James Bridenstine described Johnson as “an American hero”, adding that “her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”.
Full name: Katherine Johnson (born Creola Katherine Coleman)
Born: 26 August 1918, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, US
Died: 24 February 2020, Newport News, Virginia, US
Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician famous for her brilliant calculations, which helped the US land astronauts on the moon during the space race.