STEM Spotlight: Katherine Johnson

STEMscopes Staff | Published  November 11, 2022

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and aerospace technologist at NASA, made significant contributions to the first human spaceflights and the Moon landing.

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"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

Katherine Johnson was no ordinary scientist and STEM enthusiast. She was the driving force behind many NASA projects, where she worked almost all her life. Her calculations were critical for the first space flights of NASA in the 1960s, and she helped immensely in the analysis of sending humans to the Moon and bringing them back. Her accomplishments are even more impressive when considering an African-American woman's challenges in that era.

Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia. She was the youngest of the family; her mother was a teacher, and her father was a handyman. From an early age, she liked to make calculations, and soon, mathematics became her true passion. Unfortunately, Greenbrier County, where she grew up, did not offer public schooling for Black students after the eighth grade. Hence, her parents arranged for her to attend high school at the Institute of West Virginia.

Johnson gained admission to West Virginia State College at 14, where she thrived in academia and, particularly, the mathematics program. In 1937, she graduated summa cum laude with a mathematics degree when she was only 18 years old. She was bright, curious, and very social, and loved being surrounded by intelligent people. Johnson took every course in mathematics that was available in the catalog. W. W. Schieffin Claytor, one of her professors, noticed her enthusiasm and became her greatest supporter, himself being only the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Claytor suggested that Johnson prepare to be a research mathematician, and helped her achieve this goal. Claytor even created another class called analytical geometry of space specifically for Johnson.

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Research mathematics was not an easy field for women of color to enter at this time, so Johnson started as a teacher. Later, in 1953, she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where they also hired African-Americans for the Guidance and Navigation Department. NACA ,later on, was renamed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. Johnson and her two fellow mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, became NASA's first African-American aerospace technologists. They started with simple calculations, but their talent was quickly recognized, and they took a significant part in the most critical projects of NASA. Johnson, alongside Vaughan and Mary Jackson, broke the racial barriers of the era and set an example for future generations. Their story has become an inspiration to girls and women of color pursuing a career in STEM. In 2017 their lives and significant contributions to human spaceflight were portrayed in the movie "Hidden Figures."

Johnson’s first public success was making the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961. This was the first human spaceflight in the US. She made the mathematical analysis for the first orbital spaceflight of the US in 1962. At that time, NASA had already been using electronic computers, but it wasn't enough for the pilot, John Glenn. He specifically asked for Johnson to verify the computer's calculations; otherwise, he wouldn’t fly. After being told that Johnson had personally checked the calculations, Glenn said, “If she says they're good, then I am ready to go." The project was successful, and Glenn became the first American pilot to orbit the planet.

In an interview, when Johnson reflected on the tremendous success of her 33-year-old career, she claimed that it was making the calculations for the Moon landing in 1969. According to her, the most critical part of this process was synchronizing the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module with Project Apollo’s Lunar Module. Computers were still rudimentary then, so even the calculations made by machines had to be checked manually. Katherine Johnson had the honor to carry out this task. She goes on to point out that while everyone was worried about how to put a human being on the Moon, she and her colleagues were concerned about bringing them back to Earth.

Johnson retired in 1986, leaving behind a fascinating career full of extraordinary contributions to human space flights. She was part of 26 research projects and worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS). She always emphasized how much she loved her job and loved going to work every day. President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the country's highest civilian honor. Johnson died peacefully at a retirement home in Newport News on February 24, 2020. She was 101 years old. Katherine Johnson broke barriers in the STEM field like nobody else in her time, and became an inspiring figure for all future STEM Innovators.

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