Friday, May 27, 2016

Katherine G. Johnson, NASA Mathematician

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician for NASA that calculated the trajectory of every space flight in the 1960s. One of hundreds of women "computers," she was the only one to rise from the ranks and work with the engineering team on the Space Task Force. 

"I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed... anything that could be counted, I did." ~ Katherine G. Johnson

Katherine was born in 1918 in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia. For as long as she can remember, her love of numbers and counting was inherent, and she was impatient to follow in her siblings' footsteps and get her turn to go to school.

Katherine was always close to her father, and credits him with teaching her that she was equal to everyone else. "My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.' I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I'm as good as anybody, but no better."

Katherine's father Joshua worked as a farmer in White Sulphur Springs, a town that offered education for black children up to the eighth grade. To continue his family's education, Joshua drove them 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where his wife could get a job as a domestic helper and the children could attend high school and college while he continued to work in White Sulpher Springs.

When Katherine began school she was advanced enough to start in the second grade, and when she was 10 years old she started high school. Katherine had strong mentors and teachers throughout high school and graduated when she was 15, then entered West Virginia State College.

In college, Katherine had two years to declare a major and was torn between three subjects: English, French, and Math. When a female teacher teased that "If you don't show up for my class, I'll come find you," Katherine allowed her professor's friendly nudge to guide her decision: she followed her first love and inclination, and pursued mathematics.

Her aptitude in mathematics were noticed by another teacher, Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who encouraged Katherine to pursue research mathematics. He advised her on which classes to take to prepare for that industry, and created a class in analytical geometry of space just for her.

At 18 years old, Katherine graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and French.

Finding Employment

She had dreams of being a research mathematician after graduating, but the only opportunities available were as a teacher, so that's the job she took. It was during a vacation from teaching in 1952 that she heard that Langley Memorial Research Library was looking for "black women computers."

Langley needed human "computers" to crunch the numbers, as no such technology yet existed. Computations included wind tunnel resistance, rocket trajectories, and safe re-entry angles. The project was run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), a predecessor to NASA, and employed hundreds of women, both white and black.

But why were they specifically looking for women?

Appeal for women workers

The effort by Langley to employ more women workers started in 1941 when the US entered WWII. The American work force was short on men due to the war effort, and the US government implored women to pitch in and fill the gaps left by the men, even launching a "Rosie the Riveter" campaign for their recruitment.

Women responded by flowing into the work force in higher numbers than ever, and between 1940 and 1945 the female percentage of the US workforce increased from 27 to 37%.

In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt also signed an order for government agencies hire more African-American workers, having been made aware of the discrimination still faced by black workers in America, who faced fewer jobs and lower pay.

In 1943, Langley began hiring black women with college educations and backgrounds in chemistry and math. While offering higher pay than could be found by educated women elsewhere, such as in teaching or nursing, the facilities at the research lab were segregated.


Black women working at the Hampton, VA facility used separate washrooms, worked in a separate facility, and had to sit at the colored table in the cafeteria. Even after a few years, the white unmarried women were given housing in well-furnished dorms, while black unmarried women had to find lodging in town, which was sometimes scarce.

The facility itself was located on a former plantation, with the black "computers" working a mile away from the white "computers," in a building with no restroom.

Katherine did not hear of the job until the 1950s, and was accepted to the program in 1953.

Working at NACA

Katherine was initially put into the same computer pool as the other women, but she distinguished herself by asking incessant questions, as she tells it. She wasn't satisfied with just doing the work, she wanted to know how and why they were doing it - this was something that no-one else had ever questioned.

Katherine at NACA
When told that women did not participate in the briefings at NACA or attend meetings, she asked if there was a law against it. She was told there was not, so she began to attend the briefings.

NACA was just developing its work in space, and Katherine's command of geometry set her apart yet again as she perceived space to be a series of plane surfaces.

"We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space," she says. "We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people."

The team relied on her more and more, until she was not working in the room with the other computers, but working with the engineers, and eventually leading the team. The men relied on her for the answers.

“The women did what they were told to do,” Katherine explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”

Within five years Katherine became the only non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force, focused on getting an American astronaut into space as soon as possible. That happened for the first time in 1961, when Alan Shepard was launched into space on a 15 minute sub-orbital flight.

Katherine calculated the trajectory for Shepherd's capsule during that flight.

"The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point," she said. "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. 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."

When John Glenn went into space in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit the earth and the fifth person in space, he specifically asked that Katherine double-check his trajectory.

Glenn's flight involved more complicated computations and more variables, including the rotation of the Earth and the moon's orbit. By this time NACA had become NASA, and they were using actual computers, and not the human kind.

Johnson remembers that they could do "much more, much faster" on a computer. Still, they called her over after the computer calculations had been made to make sure the trajectory was correct. Johnson did the calculations herself, and agreed they were correct. Glenn's flight was successful.

Katherine worked on a number of other missions for NASA, including the trajectory of Apollo 11 in 1969 for the first moon landing. She was away at a sorority meeting in the Pocono Mountains when Neil Armstrong was actually landing on the moon, but she gathered with others around a small television to watch man's first steps.

She recalls that there was some exclamation over it, but not much: "It all seemed routine to people by then." Still, she felt a bit of nervousness inside, knowing she had done the calculations for his flight. "I had done the calculations and knew they were correct," said Johnson. "But just like driving (to Hampton in traffic) from Williamsburg this morning, anything could happen. I didn't want anything to happen and it didn't."

Retirement and recognition

Katherine worked with NASA until 1986, then retired with 33 years of service. She was the recipient of many awards, including the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement awards. The National Technical Association named her Mathematician of the Year in 1997, and she was honored with various degrees from colleges and universities.

When the State University of New York honored Katherine with an honorary Doctor of Law degree, she was informed at the last minute that she was not only an honoree, but also the keynote speaker - so she rose to speak with the audience about her distinguished career and experiences, in what she would refer to as a "chat" with the audience.

Katherine would be informed after the ceremony by a relative of a graduate that her informal speech had given her the motivation to return the following fall, to complete her degree.

Today, Katherine encourages students to pursue STEM careers. "We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”

In 2011, Katherine was honored by the dedication of the Katherine G. Johnson Science Technology Institute at Alpha Academy in Fayetteville, NC, and in 2015, President Barack Obama presented Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to the space program.

After all of her accomplishments and awards, Katherine was asked if she still loved mathematics. "Oh, yes," she responded. "And things have to be parallel. I see a picture right now that’s not parallel, so I’m going to go straighten it. Things must be in order."

  • Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count. Yvette Smith, November 24th, 2015, NASA,, November 24th, 2015.
  • She was a Computer when Computers Wore Skirts, Jim Hodges, NASA History,, August 26th, 2008.
  • Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM. Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services,, November 6th, 2013.
  • The Black Female Mathematicians Who Sent Astronauts to Space, Mental Floss,, March 10, 2016.

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