Katherine Johnson, a pioneer of the American space movement, was born in White Sulphur Springs, and was trained as a mathematician and physicist. Because the local schools only offered classes to African-Americans through the eighth grade, her father enrolled his children in a school 125 miles away from their home, where Johnson’s mother and three siblings lived during the academic year until they all graduated from college. Johnson graduated from high school at age 14 and from college at 18.
After teaching for seven years in elementary and high schools in West Virginia and Virginia, she went to work in 1953 as a pool mathematician or “computer” for the Langley Research Center part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Hampton, Virginia. With Congressional approval, NACA later became what is now known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
At NASA, Johnson worked on the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. She was tasked with calculations to propel space capsules into orbit around the moon and to send landing units to and from the lunar surface. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, computers were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. But according to Johnson, NASA officials called on her to verify the numbers generated by the computers. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon.
While working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at LRC, Johnson helped author the first textbook on space. Later in her career, she worked on the space shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars. Johnson co-authored 28 scientific papers during her 33 years with NASA, before retiring in 1986.
She earned many awards throughout her career, including the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award at NASA; numerous NASA LRC Special Achievement Awards; National Technical Association Mathematician of the Year; and honorary doctorates from the State University of New York at Farmingdale, Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland, and Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. In 1968 and 1999, she was honored as the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year for her scientific achievements. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, Atlanta, Georgia.
Johnson was one of the 17 recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in November 2015. Other recent awards include the Distinguished West Virginian Award from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, having a bench dedicated to her at the Air and Space Museum in Hampton and being honored as one of eight in the Virginia Women in History Traveling Exhibit sponsored by the State Library of Virginia in Richmond.
In 1997, Johnson was recognized as one of 24 black inventors and scientists at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. She was featured in the U.S. Office of Education documentary, “Practical Uses of Mathematics,” as well as in D.C. Heath’s “Fifth Grade Science” textbook. She was also included in the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Black Contributors to Science and Energy Technology,” and is featured in “Black Women Scientists in the United States” by Wini Warren.
Johnson is a graduate of West Virginia State College (now University), where she earned a B.S. degree, summa cum laude, in mathematics and French. She did graduate work at West Virginia University, one of the first blacks to attend. Johnson has been a longtime member of the Carver Presbyterian Church in Newport News and was a member of the choir. She is a Diamond Soror (+75 years) of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She also still enjoys watching sports, playing bridge and bingo, and talking with students about her work and their potential involvement in STEM initiatives.