Katherine Johnson: What You Need To Know About NASA Scientist ‘Hidden Figures’

NASA mathematician pioneer Katherine Coleman Johnson of “Hidden Figures” fame was always at the forefront of the class.

Born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, the iconic “human computer” was taking classes on the campus of historically Black West Virginia State College at the age of 13.

There, Johnson found a mentor in William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, a professor who had become the third African American to earn a doctorate in mathematics.


The bright young student earned a bachelor’s degree in both math and French, and began teaching both subjects at a black public school in Virginia.

In 1939, Johnson was chosen by West Virginia President John W. Davis as one of three black students to join West Virginia University, where she enrolled in the graduate program in mathematics.

Johnson decided to leave early, however, to start a family with her first husband James Goble. They had three daughters together.

In 1952, after he had returned to teaching, Johnson was told by a relative of the vacant positions in the Computing section of the Black West Area of ​​the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley’s laboratory.

Johnson began work at the then segregated Langley in the summer of 1953. Two weeks later, his West Virginia partner and program director, Dorothy Vaughan, assigned Johnson to a project in the Division of Maneuvering Loads of the Division of Flight Research.

The math genius would spend the next four years in aeronautics, analyzing flight test data and investigating a plane crash caused by wake turbulence.

Goble died of cancer in December 1956. The following year, the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite, sparking the space war.

In 1958, Johnson provided some of the mathematics for the 1958 Notes on Space Technology, the agency’s first comprehensive reference document on spaceflight, according to the scientific journal Nature, and the engineers in the compendium formed the core of the Space Task Group. .

It was NACA’s first official step in space travel before it joined what is now known as NASA.


In 1959, Johnson married the decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson.

In the 1960s, Johnson continued to advance his career and co-authored Determining the Azimuthal Angle at Depletion to Position a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position – a report presenting the equations that describe an orbital spaceflight during which a specifies the landing position of the spacecraft. .

It was the first time that a woman from the Flight Investigation Division had received credit as the author of an investigation report.

Johnson also worked on the trajectory analysis of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in May 1961, America’s first human spaceflight.

Perhaps in his best known achievement, in 1962 he was tasked with verifying the orbital equations that control the trajectory of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission by hand as part of the preflight checklist.

While the mission had required the construction of a global communications network connecting tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Bermuda, and Cape Canaveral, Florida, the astronauts did not want to put their lives in the hands of machines that often malfunctioned.

On July 20, 1969, NASA Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins landed on the Moon, a mission for which Johnson also performed instrumental calculations.

It also proved to be an invaluable asset during the April 13, 1970 Apollo mission, helping to provide backup procedures that ensured the safe return of the crew.

Johnson authored and co-authored a total of 26 research reports during her tenure. He retired in 1986 after 33 years at Langley.

She cited working on the calculations that helped synchronize Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (more recently known as Landsat) among her greatest achievements.

In 2015, at the age of 97, then-President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


In 2016, Johnson’s story was shared in the feature film “Hidden Figures” and in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Mathematics That Helped Win the Space Race.”

Three years later, Johnson told his own story in a book for young readers called “Reaching for the Moon.”

NASA also named a building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, after it and the SS Katherine Johnson spacecraft were launched to the International Space Station in February.

Johnson died on February 24, 2020. He was 101 years old.

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