Year born: 1918
Research Areas: Rocket Flightpaths, Trajectories, Orbital Mechanics
"I loved going to work every single day"
Katherine Johnson grew up in West Virginia, USA. Her mother was a teacher and her father a farmer and handyman. Katherine was curious about numbers from an early age and took every course in maths she could at West Virginia State College. She graduated with the highest honours in 1937 and took a job teaching at a Black public school in Virginia. In 1939, Katherine became the first Black woman to study for a postgraduate qualification at West Virginia University. She then took a break from studying and teaching to have children. In 1953 she started a job carrying out mathematical calculations at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), later known as NASA. This job was also known as “a computer”.
Katherine used her maths skills to calculate the paths of rockets through space. The path a rocket follows is also known as its trajectory. As a “computer”, she calculated the trajectory that put the first American in space. The astronaut John Glenn requested that Katherine check the calculations made by electronic computers before his spaceflight on Friendship 7 – “If she says they’re good,’” the astronaut said, “then I’m ready to go.”
Katherine also helped calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first people on the Moon. She was part of the team that got the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth safely when their spacecraft malfunctioned.
Katherine co-authored 26 scientific papers and continued to work for NASA until she retired in 1986.
The 2016 film, ‘Hidden Figures’, tells the story of how the work of Katherine and other Black women helped NASA win the space race. Two NASA facilities have been named in Katherine's honour and in 2015, the then US President Barack Obama awarded 97-year-old Katherine the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. Katherine encouraged her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology.
Katherine’s passion was maths. She said she loved to count anything that could be counted!