Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of several breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. She graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. Learn More
Celebrating the Life of Katherine Johnson
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.
In this image, she celebrates her 98th birthday, where a historical marker and bench were unveiled to mark the occasion. The event took place by the Virginia Air and Space Center at NASA Langley’s visitor center.Learn More
Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM
Lesson: You are as good as anyone in this town, but you are no better than any of them.
She was a simple girl from West Virginia who loved to count. Her love of mathematics took her well beyond her small world; some could say it even took her from Earth all the way to the stars. She was a trailblazer, forging a path that would allow many others to follow in her steps. Her spirit and determination helped lead NASA into a new era, and for that the agency is grateful.
Lesson: NASA would not be what it is if not for you, Mrs. Johnson.
Katherine Johnson passed from this life on the morning of Feb. 24, 2020. She was 101 years old.
Following a naming dedication ceremony May 5, 2016 - the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepard's historic rocket launch - NASA Langley Research Center's newest building is known as the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, honoring the "human computer" who successfully calculated the trajectories for America's first space flights.
For more about Katherine Johnson, go to: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine...