African-American Studies

Katherine Johnson Is the Human 'Computer' Who Helped Us Go to Space

Katherine Johnson, one of the real-life women who inspired the movie "Hidden Figures," was a mathematician who made monumental contributions to space travel at a time when opportunities for black women were rare.

Why She's Inspiring

Consider what it would take to become a mathematician in NASA's space program. Then consider what it would take to become a mathematician in NASA's space program as a woman in the 1950s. Then consider what it would take to become a mathematician in NASA's space program as an African-American woman in the 1950s. Now you have an idea of what Katherine Johnson, the physicist and mathematician who was critical to the success of NASA's Apollo program, was up against.

Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, and her father, Joshua, knew there was something special about her before she even reached her teens. Though Joshua was a farmer, he moved his family to the city of Institute, 120 miles away from his work in White Sulfur Springs, so that Katherine could get a good education. At age 10, Katherine attended high school. At 14, she graduated high school, and at 18, she received a college degree. After spending some time as a teacher, she noticed that NASA's Langley Research Center was looking for black "computers" — the word of the day for women who performed mathematical calculations by hand, since electronic computers didn't yet exist. She was hired in 1953 and quickly proved to NASA that was a wise decision.

Katherine G. Johnson, working as a physicist at NASA in 1966

Why She's Important

Her first achievement was in calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1961. "Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start," Johnson told NASA. "I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte."

Even when electronic computers began to take over, many people still went to Johnson to double-check the most important calculations. Famously, one of those people was John Glenn, for the mission that made him the first American to orbit the Earth. In "Hidden Figures," before Glenn is willing to climb aboard the rocket that will take him to space, he utters the now-famous line: "Get the girl to check the numbers." In reality, that request happened weeks before the mission and took Johnson several days to calculate, but nonetheless, it shows how much trust NASA put in Johnson's brilliance.

She worked at NASA until 1986, and her contributions were integral to the success of the Apollo Moon Landing program and the beginnings of the Space Shuttle program. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2016, actress Taraji P. Henson starred as Johnson in the film "Hidden Figures."

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Read the book the movie was based on: "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer December 13, 2016

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