Katherine Johnson: Pioneering Mathematician Who Calculated Space Flight Trajectories

Katherine Johnson overcame segregation and gender barriers, showing early brilliance in mathematics and graduating with honors from West Virginia State College.

Early Life and Education

Katherine Johnson's childhood home, surrounded by books and a chalkboard, with a young girl studying at a desk

Katherine Johnson, a profound figure in the field of mathematics and a trailblazer for African American women, embarked on her historic journey in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Facing the dual hurdles of segregation and gender inequity, her passion for numbers shaped her path from early childhood through her outstanding academic achievements at West Virginia State College.

Rising Through Racial and Gender Barriers

Born in a town where racial segregation was the norm, Katherine displayed extraordinary intellect despite the barriers she faced.

African Americans were often limited in educational opportunities, yet Katherine’s brilliance and determination propelled her forward.

After breezing through grades at a pace that outstripped the available schooling for black students, she attended a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, a historically black college where she later enrolled at the age of fourteen.

Academic Brilliance at West Virginia State College

At West Virginia State College, Katherine flourished.

Her excellence in mathematics didn’t go unnoticed and she took every math course the college offered.

Notably, several new courses were added to the curriculum specifically for her, taught by chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who mentored Katherine throughout her college years.

Graduating with highest honors in 1937, Katherine Johnson earned degrees in both Mathematics and French, setting a solid foundation for her future contributions to America’s space program.

Her academic journey eventually led her to attend graduate school at West Virginia University, becoming one of the first African Americans to enroll in the graduate math program there, after the state’s supreme court ruled that graduate-level education must be integrated.

Career and Contributions

Katherine Johnson’s career was marked by groundbreaking work in mathematics that significantly contributed to the advancement of aeronautics and space exploration.

Her precise calculations were fundamental to the success of many of NASA’s human spaceflight missions.

Pioneering Work at NACA and NASA

Before NASA was formed, Katherine Johnson began her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where she was one of the few African-American women to work as a research mathematician.

During her tenure, she demonstrated a profound ability to perform complex mathematical equations and computations by hand, at a time when electronic computers were not widely used.

This work laid the groundwork for her subsequent role once NACA became NASA.

Crucial Calculations for Historic Missions

Johnson’s analytical mind was pivotal in calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic flight aboard Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight.

Later, her confirmation of the calculations made by electronic computers helped ensure the success of John Glenn’s orbit around Earth in Friendship 7, a momentous event that bolstered the US position in the Space Race.

Advancing Human Spaceflight and Aeronautics

Throughout her career at NASA, Katherine Johnson made significant contributions to the space shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and plans for a mission to Mars.

Her work encompassed the geometry of space flight, the physics of satellite orbits, and the mathematics underpinning space navigation.

Her research was essential for the safe planning and return of astronauts from space and laid the foundation for future space exploration.

Recognition and Legacy

Johnson was honored with numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal for her exceptional contributions to the STEM fields.

The biographical movie “Hidden Figures,” based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, showcases her career and the struggles she faced, immortalizing her role as a trailblazer for women and African-American mathematicians.

The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at Langley Research Center stands as a testament to her impact on aeronautics and astronautics.

Johnson passed away in 2020, leaving behind a legacy that transcends her contributions to NASA and serves as an inspiration for aspiring mathematicians and scientists.