Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She grew up in a family that valued education and encouraged her to pursue her passion for mathematics. Even from a young age, Katherine displayed exceptional mathematical abilities, and her talent would eventually lead her to become one of the most notable mathematicians in the history of space exploration.
Despite growing up during a time of racial segregation, Katherine was determined to receive an education. She attended high school at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now known as West Virginia State University, which was one of the few higher education institutions that accepted African-American students. Katherine graduated with degrees in Mathematics and French in 1937, at the age of 18.
After completing her education, Katherine began teaching at a segregated public school in Marion, Virginia. However, her desire to pursue further education led her to apply for a teaching position at the historically black West Virginia State College. Instead, she was offered a position in the West Area Computing unit at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, in 1953.
At Langley, Katherine joined a team of African-American women mathematicians known as “computers,” who performed complex calculations manually using pencils, slide rules, and adding machines. Despite the racial and gender discrimination prevalent at the time, Katherine’s remarkable mathematical skills quickly gained recognition.
Katherine’s work primarily involved calculating and verifying complex mathematical equations that were essential for the success of early space missions. She was a key contributor to the Mercury program, which aimed to put the first American astronaut into space. Katherine’s calculations were crucial in determining the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for the spacecraft.
Her contributions were particularly significant during the Friendship 7 mission in 1962 when astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Katherine’s precise calculations were vital in ensuring the successful completion of the mission. Despite the growing reliance on electronic computers, Glenn personally requested that Katherine verify the trajectory calculations performed by the newly installed IBM 7090 computer, as he trusted her work implicitly.
Katherine’s expertise and exceptional attention to detail also played a crucial role in the Apollo program, where she worked on calculations for the lunar lander. Her calculations helped enable the safe landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon and subsequent missions.
Throughout her career at NASA, Katherine Johnson published numerous technical reports and received several commendations for her work. She co-authored one of the first papers on the determination of satellite positions with the use of computers. Katherine also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring from NASA in 1986.
It was not until later in life that Katherine’s contributions gained wider recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her pioneering work as a mathematician and her dedication to breaking down barriers for women and African-Americans in the field of STEM.
Katherine’s story reached a broader audience with the release of the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted the contributions of African-American female mathematicians at NASA, including Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. The film brought her remarkable achievements and the challenges she faced due to discrimination to the forefront, further solidifying her status as a role model and an inspiration for countless individuals.
Katherine Johnson’s remarkable legacy as a trailblazer in the field of mathematics and space exploration continues to inspire future generations. Her determination, intelligence, and unwavering commitment to her work have left an indelible mark on the history of science and serve as a testament to the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunities in scientific pursuits.