Katherine Johnson: NASA Mathematician

We are back with another informative article for you 📝

This time about the amazing Katherine Johnson, a black mathematician who played a crucial role for the NASA and its 1962 earth orbit. 🚀

Katherine Johnson | *08-08-1918 | † 24-02-2020| USA | NASA Mathematician

For the third publication of the Women in Timeline project, we’d like to focus on the woman who helped to reach a milestone in all of human history: to put the first man on the moon. The name Katherine Jonhson might sound familiar nowadays, due to her being the main character in the autobiographical film Hidden Figures that came out in 2016. But the film’s name already indicates it: Katherine Johnson has remained unknown along with a great number of brilliant women in the history of NASA, despite their many accomplishments and their great contributions to American spacecraft. With her impressive career Katherine Johnson is a pioneer for women in science, especially for women of colour.

From a young age, Katherine stood out to be a bright student, especially with her talent in mathematics. Because of her intellect she skipped several grades which made her start highschool at the young age of 10.  At 18 she enrolled in the historically black West Virginia State College, from which she graduated with the highest honours in mathematics and French of her year. She took on a job as a mathematics teacher at a black public school in Virginia. In 1939, the state government decided to have more integration in their higher education. Katherine Johnson was the only black woman that got offered a spot at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. Katherine Johnson left her teaching job to start with the graduate math program there, but she decided to leave after the first period, to focus on raising her family. Being the ambitious woman that she was, after successfully raising her three daughters, she moved in 1953 with her husband to pursue the opportunity to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA for short. Her temporary place there soon became permanent when she became a permanent member of the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. She worked in the all black branch of the project, analysing data from flight tests.         

But as we all know life can’t always come easy. In december 1956 Katherine lost her husband to cancer, as she was wrapping up the work for the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. Despite her grief, she continued working for NACA, which eventually changed to NASA in 1958. When in 1957 the Soviet satellite Sputnik successfully was launched into space, Katherine Johnson provided part of the math for the manual ‘Notes on Space Technology’ which came from the lectures that were given to the core of the Space Task Group, which was NASA’s first group that had the focus of getting into space. Katherine Johnson was also the first woman in her division to receive author credit on a paper titled ‘Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a selected earth position’ in the 1960s.  But what stands out to be one of Katherine’s greatest accomplishments is the calculations that she has done for the orbital mission of John Glenn, which was the first American to completely orbit the earth. The human computers, like Katherine Johnson, were mostly replaced in 1962 by electronic calculating machines. They were programmed with the complicated orbital equations that would be in charge of the exact journey around the earth. The electronic calculating machines however were quite new and therefore risky to use due to the possible blackouts and miscalculations. Therefore, as part of the pre-flight checklist John Glenn insisted Katherine Johnson to recalculate the same equations. Kathrine Johnson recalls John Glenn stating that ‘If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.’ After the orbit ‘Friendship 7’ successfully landed, Katherine Johnson continued to be part of many significant projects that became milestones in the history of American Spaceflight, for instance her favourite where she did the calculations that helped Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command Service Module, until she retired in 1986, after working for NASA for 33 years.

Katherine Johnson is a name well deserved to be known in the space race, as she contributed a great deal in helping NASA move forward. And besides her contribution to science she has made a huge change in the social and racial inequality in her discipline, by being a pioneer for women and people of colour. Luckily in 2015, she finally got the great public recognition that she deserves, when President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award of the United States. This was a great step in American history for women and people of colour, as they have been left out of history books for ages. However, Katherine Johnson has never taken credit for her place as a black woman, because she always recalls what her dad taught her: ‘You are as good as anybody in this town, but you are no better.’


Author: Siene Verbeek
Image: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya


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