Katherine Johnson worked as a mathematician for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for many years. NASA works on space travel.
One of Johnson’s main jobs was to figure out how to get a person into space and back to Earth safely. Her work helped send the first American into space.
Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918. Her parents were Joshua and Joylette Coleman.
Johnson grew up in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was a very good student. She had a special talent for math. She finished middle school when she was only ten years old.
Schools were segregated back then. This meant black students and white students went to different schools. Johnson’s town did not have a high school for African American students. So Johnson took high school classes at West Virginia State College. She graduated high school from this college.
Then she continued to study there. She studied math and French. She earned degrees in both in 1937.
Johnson’s first job after college was teaching. She taught at a public school for African Americans in Virginia.
In 1939, Johnson entered graduate school for math at West Virginia State. People attend graduate school to earn advanced degrees. Johnson was one of three African Americans chosen to integrate the school. This meant the school would let African Americans attend with white students. But Johnson left the school after a short time to start a family.
Helping with Space Travel
In 1953, Johnson was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). This agency came before NASA started. NACA did research into aircraft.
Johnson was hired to work as a research mathematician, or “human computer.” Human computers solved very difficult math problems by hand. These math problems helped make space travel possible.
Johnson was soon moved to the Flight Research Division. This part of the agency worked on projects related to space travel. Its goal was to put a person in space.
Most of the people from NACA became part of NASA in 1958. Johnson became part of NASA too.
NASA succeeded in putting a person into space in 1961. This was when astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Johnson used math to figure out how to get Shepard into space and back to Earth safely.
Later Johnson helped with John Glenn’s mission to orbit, or circle, Earth. NASA used electronic computers to plot his path. These computers were very new, though. Glenn did not trust them completely. But he trusted Johnson. He asked her to do the math by hand to make sure the numbers were right.
Johnson worked on other famous missions. She helped with the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon during that mission. The Apollo 13 mission had problems during its flight into space. Johnson’s math helped bring those astronauts home safely.
Honored by a President
Johnson worked for NASA for many years. She retired in 1986.
She has received many honors for her work. One important one is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest honor a US citizen who is not in the military can receive. President Barack Obama presented the medal to Johnson in 2015.
NASA named a building after Johnson in 2016. It is the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Langley, Virginia. Johnson turned 100 in 2018.
Johnson was not only a NASA mathematician but also a wife and mother. She married James Francis Goble in 1939. They had three daughters together. Goble died in 1956. Johnson remarried in 1959 to James A. Johnson.
Honored in Film
A 2016 movie called Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of three African American human computers. One of these is Katherine Johnson. The other women honored in the film were Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.
Hidden Figures shows the women’s struggles and successes at NASA. Johnson is played by actress Taraji P. Henson. Actress Janelle Monáe plays Jackson. Actress Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan. The movie is based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.
In Johnson’s Time
- 1918: World War I ends.
- 1927: Charles Lindbergh becomes the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
- 1941: The United States enters World War II.
- 1969: Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to set foot on the moon.
- 1983: Astronaut Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
- 1997: Scientists in Scotland successfully clone a sheep.
- 2008: Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States.
- 2016: Swimmer Michael Phelps wins his 28th Olympic medal, the most of any Olympian in history.