Happy 101st birthday to Katherine Johnson, born on August 26th in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. You probably learned about Katherine’s work as a “computer” with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Her achievements at NACA’s Langley laboratory were the result of a lifelong love of math. Katherine breezed through her classes and advanced quickly through school. At the age of 13, she attended high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, a historically black public university. After graduating high school, she enrolled at the campus and graduated with highest honors.
When West Virginia began integrating its graduate programs, Katherine Johnson was one of the first African-American students chosen to attend. After one session, she decided to leave school to start a family with her husband. When their daughters were older, she taught public school until a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the NACA’s laboratory. She soon began working in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, where she analyzed data from flight tests.
Soon, Johnson developed an interest in calculating trajectories of spacecraft. While working with the Space Task Group, she performed calculations for Projects Mercury and Apollo. She even calculated the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s 1961 Freedom mission and the Apollo 11 mission. The astronauts themselves trusted Johnson’s work; she recalls that, while NASA was preparing John Glenn’s orbital mission, he requested that Katherine double-check the electronic computer’s work.
Katherine Johnson worked with NASA, helping to develop the Earth Resources Satellite and the Space Shuttle Program, until she retired in 1986. Her achievements earned her several awards, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2016, NASA dedicated a new research facility called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center.
If you’d like to learn more about Katherine Johnson and her groundbreaking work, we have some suggestions for you!
A Computer Called Katherine by Suzanne Slade
If you have a young mathematician or scientist in your life, inspire them to dream big with this book!
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
If you loved the movie Hidden Figures, take a deeper look into the lives of the women of the West Area Computing section.
Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby
We can all agree that Katherine Johnson is an amazing example for women in STEM; now, read this book to learn more about the mathematicians and scientists that you didn’t learn about in school.