In celebration of Black History Month, SRG and our sister brand Lorien are exploring the stories behind some of the most significant contributions made by STEM figures of black heritage. This time, we celebrate the pioneering life of Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), a NASA mathematician whose calculations played a pivotal role in enabling the first crewed spaceflights.
Early life & education
Johnson was born Creola Katherine Coleman in West Virginia in August 1918, the youngest of four children. With her mother being a teacher, the young Katherine was encouraged to pursue her academic potential and mathematical talent from a young age.
By the age of 10, an innate curiosity and intelligence had propelled her several grades ahead at school. However, because her hometown did not offer black children public schooling beyond the eighth grade, her family had to move 120 miles (193km) so she could attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. The school was situated on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College (WVSC).
After graduating high school at 14, Katherine attended WVSC. Here, she took every available maths course offered by the college and found a mentor in the professor William Schieffelin Claytor, who was notable for being only the third African-American to earn a PhD in mathematics.
While at college, Johnson also developed a keen interest in astronomy and geometry — fascinations that would align with her mathematical talent later in life. She graduated in 1937 at the age of 18 with the highest honours in mathematics and French.
After teaching for a couple of years, she was accepted to West Virginia University's graduate math program and became the first black woman to attend the school. However, she quit after one year to raise her three young daughters with her first husband, James Goble.
In 1952, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring black female mathematicians. Johnson, who had returned to teaching and wanted to pursue a career as a research mathematician, jumped at the chance. In June 1953, she accepted a job as a “computer” at the agency.
Johnson was based at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, where she was supervised by fellow African-American mathematician and West Virginian, Dorothy Vaughan. Here, she spent the next four years analysing data from flight tests and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. In 1956, her husband lost his battle with brain cancer.
Though there was nothing particularly remarkable about Johnson’s early work at NACA (which disbanded to become NASA in 1958), her attitude to the racial and gender barriers of the time certainly was. Displaying foresight and assertiveness, Johnson ignored the segregated workplace and endemic sexism at NACA, questioning her colleagues’ outdated views and asking superiors if she could attend important meetings.
Thanks to her courage and persistence, Johnson became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited as an author on a research report. However, this was only the start of her groundbreaking contribution.
Reaching for the stars
In 1957, the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite — an event that would kickstart the Space Race and change Johnson’s life irrevocably. Joining the Space Task Group at the newly-formed NASA, Johnson performed trajectory analysis for the United States’ first human spaceflight: Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission, Freedom 7. She also calculated the launch window for his Mercury mission later that year.
By 1962, NASA had begun using electronic computers to perform orbital equations previously done by human “computers” like Johnson. However, the machines were prone to being a little temperamental.
Prior to the launch of his Friendship 7 mission to orbit the Earth, astronaut John Glenn asked engineers to specifically get Johnson to recheck the equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand. Glenn refused to fly until Johnson had confirmed the calculations herself.
“If she says they’re good,’” Glenn told engineers, “then I’m ready to go.” In the end, Glenn’s orbital flight was a success -- helping to tip the Space Race in favour of the United States for the first time.
It’s hard to understate just how remarkable Johnson’s contribution was for the time. The author Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote a book on the achievements of Johnson and her colleagues, perfectly encapsulates Johnson’s trailblazing impact:
“So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”
After Glenn’s successful mission, Johnson went on to make trajectory calculations for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, helping to synchronise the Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, later renamed Landsat) and authored or co-authored twenty-six research reports.
Later life and legacy
“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”
— Katherine Johnson
Following her retirement in 1986, Johnson dedicated herself to encouraging students to take up STEM careers, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming that she “refused to be limited by society's expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity's reach.”
Though Johnson’s achievements went somewhat under the radar for much of her life, the 2016 film Hidden Figures changed all that. The film (starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson) chronicles the vital role that Johnson, Vaughan and their colleague Mary Jackson played in the Space Race — catapulting the women into the public spotlight and giving them long-overdue recognition for their achievements.
Johnson passed away at the age of 101 in February 2020, having lived a life that spanned the worst excesses of Jim Crow segregation to the inauguration of the first black president — an event that Johnson had no doubt made possible in her own small way.
While the odds were stacked against her, Johnson’s genius with numbers enabled American astronauts to boldly go where no one else had ventured before. In doing so, she was able to defy all expectations for an African-American woman of her era.
With women and minorities still facing barriers to STEM opportunities, few scientific role models offer such an inspirational, visionary example for us all to follow.
For more insights into the world of science, stay tuned to the SRG blog.