Katherine Johnson played an important role in the space race contested by the United States and the USSR in the 1950s and ’60s. It was her abilities in algebraic computation that made it possible for NASA to send the first American astronauts into space. And yet, despite her colossal work for over 30 years on numerous space missions, her contribution has only recently been recognized.
A passion for mathematics
Katherine Coleman, born in West Virginia in August 1918, was the youngest in a family of four children. Her father was a farmer, and her mother a teacher. Racial segregation in the early 20th century meant that Afro-American children could not attend school past eighth grade. Her father did everything possible for his children to continue their studies, enrolling them in a school more than 200 kilometers from the family home.
Very early on, Katherine demonstrated incredible mathematical abilities. She finished high school at the age of 14, and at 18 earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French.
Following a ruling of the United States Supreme Court that required higher education to be offered to white students and black students alike, Katherine was selected in 1939 along with two other Afro-Americans to do graduate work in mathematics. After one session she gave up her schooling to raise a family with her first husband, James Goble, with whom she would have three daughters.
A human computer
In 1952, Katherine was hired as a mathematician at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA. Her work as a “human computer,” as it was called at the time, consisted in manually carrying out complex calculations for the engineers. At that point she was part of a team made up of Afro-American women.
She was next transferred to the squad responsible for the calculations for future spaceflights, in 1958. Her great skills in computations and in analytic geometry made her a standout in a team that had to that point been made up exclusively of white males.
Katherine married James Johnson in 1959. The couple lived together for 60 years, until James’s death in 2019.
Calculating trajectories for spaceflights
Katherine Johnson, in 1960, became the first woman to cosign a research report at NASA. That report developed the equations describing the trajectories of a spaceflight.
The following year, it was she who did the analyses for the trajectory of the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
The astronaut John Glenn even asked that Katherine manually verify the elements of his spaceflight in 1962, since he had no faith in the computers of that time.
For the Apollo 11 mission, Katherine helped calculate the rendezvous trajectories between the lunar module and the command module before the return to Earth. She considered that to be the greatest accomplishment of her career.
She retired from NASA in 1986.
Katherine Johnson received many distinctions after her active career, including several honorary doctorates. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award conferred on a civilian in the United States.
The following year, NASA named its computational research facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in her honor. Finally, the United States Congress awarded her its highest distinction, the Gold Medal, in 2019.
Katherine Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101.
This great lady worked all her career on opening doors to women and people of color in the scientific and technological fields. Without the perseverance of Katherine Johnson, it could be asked whether the United States would have reached the Moon before the Soviets.
Many women scientists are unfortunately unknown to the general public, despite important discoveries. Learn more about some of them:
- Mary Jackson, a pioneer who opened the doors to space, despite segregation
- Vera Cooper Rubin, the woman who discovered the dark side of the Universe
- Lise Meitner, who helped unlock the secrets of the nucleus of atoms
- The lasers that changed the life of Donna Strickland
- Susan Jocelyn Bell, the overlooked Nobel Prize winner
Don't miss the nobELLES exhibition
presented at the Planetarium from April 27, 2023