Katherine G. Johnson
Tech History

Katherine G. Johnson – Black History Month

Katherine G. Jackson, whose story also popularized in the flick from 2016 “Hidden Figures”, is known for being one of the brilliant physicists/mathematicians of NASA who helped bring men into space and known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation.

Early Life and Education

She had shown to be a gifted student at an early age. Johnson would be admitted to West Virginia State College at the age of 10 years old to take coursework–as many African-American students were not offered public schooling past the 8th grade! She would graduate from high school 14 and then enter West Virginia State University, and graduate summa cum laude in 1937 with a French and Mathematics degree at age 18. She became a teacher post-grad.

Johnson left her teaching job and enrolled in a graduate math program. She was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at WVU and became one of three African-American students, and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. She would leave after a year to focus on family after getting pregnant.


Johnson would return to teaching to support her husband when he got his cancer diagnostic. She decided on a career as a research mathematician, which was a difficult field to enter into, until a family gathering where a relative recommended that NACA (later NASA) were looking for human “computers” to double check calculations of engineers at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Johnson was offered a job in 1953 and became part of the early NASA team and originally assigned to the same department supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (read more about her here).

Johnson would be reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division, staffed mostly by white male engineers. And just like the office scenes presented in Hidden Figures, she felt the discrimination against women in NASA having been quoted the following:

“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 the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.” So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”* -Katherine Johnson

From 1958 until her retirement, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist in the Spacecraft Controls Branch; a department that was first best known for the “Freedom 7 Mercury Project” which launched John Glenn into Earth’s orbit. In fact, even when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate the orbit, Glenn would request Johnson verify the computer’s numbers.

In 1970, Johnson worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew’s return to Earth, which of course was challenging because the moon was a moving target. Later in her career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

Awards and Honors

Johnson is considered one of the pioneering examples of African-American Women in STEM: co-authoring 26 scientific papers, named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999 and most notably President Barack Obama awarding Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans in 2015. She’d also been included in BBC’s list of 100 Influential Women worldwide.


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