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Who is Katherine Johnson? What did she do for NASA?

by Ana Lopez
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Katherine Johnson loved math. She was referred to as a “computer” early in her career. She helped NASA put an astronaut in orbit. She later contributed to the moon landing.

Who is Katherine Johnson?

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a mathematician from the United States, is known for her work on the country’s space program.

Her calculations and analyzes have helped astronauts on missions to the moon and map different flight paths.

Throughout her more than three decades of service to NASA, her innovative calculations have contributed to the agency’s credibility.

Johnson’s aptitude for numbers was evident from an early age. She received top honors after graduation and a degree in mathematics.

Together with other female employees in the West Computers branch, she started working at NACAthe organization that preceded NASA.

She evaluated the test results and presented the mathematical inferences the space program needed.

She estimated the course of Freedom 7 and the launch of Apollo 11, participated in NASA’s Mercury program, and calculated and surveyed the Mercury program.

She worked for the space shuttle program towards the end of her professional life. She received several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her outstanding career defied gender and race prejudices and helped America achieve some of its most significant space achievements.

In 1986, Johnson left NASA for good. Her life served as the basis for the novel “Hidden Figures”, which was subsequently made into a film.

The Early Years of Katherine Johnson

Joshua and Joylette Coleman welcomed Katherine Johnson on August 26, 1918, in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. While her mother was a teacher, her father mainly worked as a handyman at the Greenbrier Hotel.

Katherine is the youngest of four siblings and also has three older siblings. From an early age, Johnson’s aptitude for mathematics was evident.

She was only ten years old when she was forced to enroll in West Virginia State College because of her African American heritage. When she was 14 years old, she completed high school.

She later enrolled at West Virginia University and decided to study mathematics. Many instructors became interested in tutoring her as a result of her diligence. WW Scheefflin Claytor and Angie Turner King were her instructors.

In 1937 she received a degree in Mathematics and French Summa Cum Laude. She then accepted a job as a public school teacher in Marion, Virginia.

After marrying James Francis Goble in 1939, she resigned. She was one of three African American students enrolled at West Virginia University at the time.

Katherine Johnson’s Contribution to Space History: What Did She Do for NASA?

Naturally, the early talent and penchant for numbers led Katherine Johnson to pursue a career in research mathematics, but white American men dominated in this industry and it was difficult for an African-American woman to make a name for herself.

In 1952, through a relative, she heard about vacancies at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of NASA.

No matter their ethnicity or gender, mathematicians were welcome to apply for work for NACA’s Guidance and Navigation Department. In 1953, Johnson applied, received a formal job offer, and accepted the position.

She started out as a “computer” at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the Virginia area. She served in this capacity between 1953 and 1958.

Who is Katherine Johnson
Who is Katherine Johnson

She was later transferred from the West Area Computers Department to the Guidance and Control Department, which consisted mostly of male engineers.

Racist legislation was prevalent in the environment where she worked. African-American women were required by federal employment segregation rules to work, eat, and use restrooms that were not the same as their peers.

There were signs on their workstations that read “Colored Computers.” When NACA was acquired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, the colored pool had to be dismantled.

From 1958 to 1986, when she decided to retire, Johnson worked as an aerospace technician for NASA in the Spacecraft Controls Branch.

Her work on the mathematical calculation for Alan Shepard’s space travel on May 5, 1961, is among her most illustrious achievements.

He made history by becoming the first American in space. She was also involved in launch calculations for the Mercury mission.

She was also essential in creating the astronauts’ navigation charts in cases where electrical equipment failed.

Astronaut John Glenn specifically asked Johnson to calculate his orbit around the planet as NASA adopted the latest technology.

He said he would not leave unless Johnson confirmed the calculations. When digital computers first appeared, Johnson began communicating directly with them and quickly learned the new technology at her disposal.

She determined the trajectory of the Apollo 11 flight, which resulted in the moon landing in 1969. She contributed to the Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970.

Her calculations, which focused on backup plans and navigation charts, ensured the crew’s safe return to Earth when the project was formally halted.

Johnson worked on a Mars mission, the Earth Resources Satellite, and the Space Shuttle program at the end of her career. She left NASA for good in 1986.

The biography ‘Hidden Figures’, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, contains a description of the life of Johnson and of other of her mathematician colleagues.

2016 saw a critically acclaimed movie based on the novel of the same title Taraji Henson in the lead. Johnson entered the Academy Awards that year because the film was nominated.

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Katherine Johnson’s personal life

In 1939, Katherine was paired with James Francis Goble. Constance, Joylette and Katherine were the three children born into the marriage. In 1956 her husband died of a malignancy.

In 1959, she married Lieutenant James A. Johnson, a veteran of two world wars. She currently lives in Hampton, Virginia, with her husband.

She continues to inspire her grandchildren and former students to seek careers in science as her enthusiasm for the profession has not waned.

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