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 in 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.

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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," NASA quoted Johnson as saying. "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—including John Glenn, for the mission that made him the first American to orbit the Earth— still went to Johnson to double-check the most important calculations. 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.

Editors' Picks: Awe-Inspiring Videos About Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, Human Computer

Without Katherine Johnson, it would have taken NASA much longer to put a man on the moon.

Katherine Johnson Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Explore the achievements that led this mathematician to earn the nation's highest civilian honor.

Katherine Johnson By The Numbers

In August 2016, Katherine Johnson turned 98. Hear the other numbers that define this genius mathematician.

Written by Curiosity Staff December 13, 2016

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