When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, it was the completion of many years of determination, hard work, and dreams.
It was also thanks to Katherine Johnson and her calculations.
Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson grew up with a love of numbers and counting. She loved school so much that she entered high school at age ten. She went on to study at West Virginia State College, where her skills in math were recognized by one of her professors, who encouraged her to take more and more advanced math courses.
After graduating at age 18, Johnson first became a teacher. In an interview with “Makers” she said “that was it, you could become a nurse or a teacher.” But when a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was hiring, she applied. Johnson started work at NASA’s predecessor in 1953, as part of the West Area Computing Unit, a group of African-American women mathematicians at Langley Research Center.
Johnson faced both racism and sexism but has said that she just “ignored” barriers. When meetings were called she would ask to go, even when told that women didn’t normally attend. She was part of the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division, and later the Spacecraft Controls Branch.
Her calculations provided trajectories and launch windows for many history making space missions, including Alan Shephard’s first space flight and the 1961 Mercury Mission. She verified computer calculations for John Glenn’s orbit of earth, and in 1969 the Apollo 11 flight followed her computed trajectory to send mankind to the moon. Then in 1970, Johnson’s math helped to bring home the astronauts of Apollo 13.
Johnson worked for NASA until 1986, but even after retirement she still took time to speak to students and encourage them in their own studies. Her story has continued to inspire others, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Suggested by President Barack Obama (2016 State of the Union)
Written by Mary Ratliff