African-American Transportation History: Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician

Katherine Johnson was one of the pioneering National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) African-American females to be featured, along with supervisor and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and engineer Mary Jackson, in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. (Johnson was portrayed in that Oscar-nominated film by Taraji P. Henson, with Octavia Spencer playing the part of Vaughan and Janelle Monáe appearing as Jackson.) Hidden Figures was based on a book of the same name that had been written by Margot Lee Shetterly.

As a NASA mathematician, Johnson’s own critical role involved calculating rocket trajectories and Earth orbits to ensure the success of early U.S. human spaceflight missions. President Barack Obama, when presenting Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, highlighted the significance of her achievements on behalf of space exploration. He said, “In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars.”

Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her strong interest in and expertise in math was evident at a very young age. “Growing up in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson counted everything,” Obama noted during the 2015 ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “She counted steps. She counted dishes. She counted the distance to the church.”

After graduating from high school when she was only 14, Johnson attended West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University). She took every math course that the college had to offer. Johnson graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in both mathematics and French. She was just 18 at the time. Johnson went on to teach at an African-American public school in Marion, Virginia. Eventually, however, she enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Johnson was the first African-African woman to attend graduate school at that university.

Johnson became focused on a career in mathematical research. This ultimately led her to be hired in 1953 as a mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was succeeded by NASA in 1958. Johnson began work at NACA in its Guidance and Navigation Department. As part of a racially segregated computing unit in that department, Johnson worked on various mathematical analyses by hand. Her efforts in this regard were concentrated on such topics as gust alleviation for airplanes.

Johnson’s career took on new and far more daunting dimensions when became was reassigned to NASA’s Guidance and Control Division, to help work on plans for the first spaceflights of American astronauts. “Our office computed all the [rocket] trajectories,” Johnson explained in a 2012 interview with the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”

Johnson’s contributions included plotting backup navigation charts for astronauts to use in the event of electronic failures. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, who made history as the first American to travel into outer space. When John Glenn was getting ready to embark in 1962 on the first American orbital spaceflight, he refused to fly at all until Johnson (whom he requested specifically) had verified by hand the trajectory calculations of NASA’s then-nascent IBM computers.

Another one of Johnson’s key accomplishments took place in 1969 when she helped to calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 spaceflight, which first landed humans on the Moon. The following year, she was among those who worked on preparations for the flight of Apollo 13 to the Moon for a landing there. After this mission had to be aborted en route to the Moon when an oxygen tank exploded onboard the spacecraft and severely damaged the service module, it was Johnson’s work on backup charts and procedures that helped ensure a safe path for the Apollo 13 astronauts to return safely to Earth. By the time she retired from NASA in 1986, Johnson also worked on such other initiatives as the Space Shuttle program and plans for an eventual mission to Mars.

Johnson’s career, though, was also characterized for several years by various forms of discrimination against herself and other African-American women in the workplace. They initially had to not only work in segregated settings but also use restrooms and eat in areas apart from their white colleagues. While a few of the restrictions were lifted after NACA was superseded by NASA, several other barriers remained in place and did not go away easily. Johnson later recalled, “We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be.”

In her later years, Johnson took time to strongly encourage young people to pursue careers in mathematics, engineering, science, and technology. In addition to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019. Her other honors included being given NASA’s Silver Snoopy Award, which is presented to those who have made notable contributions to spaceflight mission safety and success, in 2016.  (This award depicts Snoopy, the popular canine character from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, dressed as an astronaut.)

Johnson died on February 24, 2020, at a retirement home in Newport News, Virginia. She was 101. Following her death, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that those at the agency “will never forget Katherine Johnson’s courage and the milestones we could not have reached without her. Her story and her grace continue to inspire the world.” In her own tribute, Shetterly underscored in an Associated Press interview how Johnson passed away during Black History Month. Shetterly also said, “The wonderful gift that Katherine Johnson gave us is that her story shined a light on the stories of so many other people. She gave us a new way to look at black history, women’s history and American history.”

For more information on Katherine Johnson, please check out  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Johnson and her 24 February 2020 Associated Press obituary at https://www.oregonlive.com/history/2020/02/mathematics-pioneer-katherine-johnson-portrayed-in-hidden-figures-dies-at-101.html

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