Katherine Johnson

Black NASA mathematician known for calculating launch angles and trajectories for the first human spaceflight

Who is Katherine Johnson?

Katherine was born to Joshua and Joylette Smith in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, and died at the age of 97 after a remarkable life and career.

Katherine Johnson is a NASA mathematician and physicist who contributed to the success of the US space program. She was one of three African-American women employed by NASA in 1958 when she started working as a “human computer” at Langley Research Center. 

Her Early Life and Education

Katherine graduated from high school at age 14 and then attended West Virginia State College (now a University) at the age of 16. In 1937, she earned a degree in Mathematics and French, graduating Summa Cum Laude with honors.

In 1943, Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA’s predecessor agency. It was there she calculated trajectories for aircraft such as the X-15 rocket plane. In 1947, she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics from Berkeley, her dissertation entitled “Non-Linear Partial Differential Equations of Mathematical Physics”

She graduated from West Virginia State College with a degree in mathematics and physical science, and then she went on to graduate school at the University of Maryland, where she earned her master’s degree in mathematics and her doctorate in math.

Her Contributions to Science and Her Awards

Katherine calculated trajectories for Project Mercury and Apollo missions and helped to plan the launch of Alan Shepard on Freedom 7. In 1962, she calculated trajectories for the launch of John Glenn into orbit around Earth.

She received NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award and NASA’s Apollo Group Achievement Award, and then in 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to human spaceflight programs.

Her Legacy

In addition to being an inspiration for the future generation, Katherine Johnson is also very well known for being one of the main characters in Hidden Figures movie about three women who were instrumental in shaping America’s space program during its early years.

Katherine’s legacy still lives on today through the women of color at NASA for whom she opened the door to space. 

Learn more about Katherine Johnson

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