The Women’s Empowerment Committee celebrates Black History Month 2020.
Mathematician: Katherine Johnson
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights.
Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to Joylette and Joshua Coleman. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a farmer and janitor. From a young age, Johnson enjoyed mathematics and could easily solve mathematical equations. Her father moved Johnson’s family to Institute, West Virginia, which was 125 miles away from the family home so that Johnson and her siblings could attend school. She attended West Virginia State High School and graduating at fourteen. Johnson received her B.S. degree in French and mathematics in 1932 from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). In 1940, she attended West Virginia University to obtain a graduate degree. Johnson was one of the first African-Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. However, family issues kept her from completing the required courses.
In 1953, she joined Langley Research Center (LaRC) as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Johnson was assigned to the all-male flight research division. Her knowledge made her invaluable to her superiors, and her assertiveness won her a spot in previously all-male meetings. NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Upon leaving The Flight Mechanics Branch, Johnson went on to join the Spacecraft Controls Branch where she calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space in 1959. Johnson also verified the mathematics behind John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962 and calculated the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969. She retired from NASA in 1986.
Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2019, Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.