Home Events ‪Happy 99th Birthday Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Who Calculated The Trajectory of the Apollo 11 Mission
‪Happy 99th Birthday Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Who Calculated The Trajectory of the Apollo 11 Mission

‪Happy 99th Birthday Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Who Calculated The Trajectory of the Apollo 11 Mission

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Happy 99th Birthday Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Who Calculated The Trajectory of the Apollo 11 Mission

 

 

Born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers. Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman–a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.

As a computer scientist, she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally rechecked the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 combining her math talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.

 

Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal.
Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Her father, Joshua, was determined that his bright little girl would have a chance to meet her potential. He drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she could continue her education through high school. Johnson’s academic performance proved her father’s decision was the right one: Katherine skipped though grades to graduate from high school at 14, from college at 18.

Katherine Johnson and astronaut Leland Melvin
Katherine Johnson speaks with astronaut Leland Melvin during a NASA STEM education event.
Credits: Katherine Johnson

In 1953, after years as a teacher and later as a stay-at-home mom, she began working for NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. The NACA had taken the unusual step of hiring women for the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating the results of wind tunnel tests in 1935.  In a time before the electronic computers we know today, these women had the job title of “computer.”  During World War II, the NACA expanded this effort to include African-American women.  The NACA was so pleased with the results that, unlike many organizations, they kept the women computers at work after the war.  By 1953 the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department – and Katherine Johnson found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.

Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson sits at her desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device.” See astronaut John Glenn with a similar device: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_445.html.
Credits: NASA

When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says. In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

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