Birth: August 26, 1918
Death: February 2, 2020
Calculated launch windows for Mercury missions
Computed trajectory for Apollo 11 flight to the Moon
Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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 learning so much that she entered high school at age ten. Going on to study at West Virginia State College, her skill in math was 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, 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 contributions have been recognized in many ways including being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and having numerous schools AND spacecraft named in her honor. Shortly before her death in 2020 Johnson and her work were depicted in the book and subsequent film Hidden Figures allowing her legacy of inspiration to continue.
Suggested by President Barack Obama (2016 State of the Union)
Written by Mary Ratliff