The trailer for “Hidden Figures” — a movie based on the untold story of black women mathematicians who became human “computers” for NASA — was released yesterday. Today, we share the story of one of these women — Katherine Johnson.
Katherine Johnson’s path to becoming a NASA mathematician started from her early obsession with counting.
“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 Johnson, NASA
In 1918, she was born to Joshua and Joylette Coleman, both of whom recognized her mathematical abilities early and were determined to help her reach her potential. By 10 years old, Johnson was a freshman in high school. By 14, she graduated from high school. By 15, she entered college at West Virginia State University.
While in college, Johnson was mentored by many professors, including the renowned W.W. Schiefflin Claytor — the third African American ever to earn a PhD in mathematics. Claytor noted Johnson’s abilities and took her under his wings. He even created new math courses just for her. By 18, Johnson graduated from college and was encouraged to obtain a graduate degree in mathematics.
“Many professors tell you that you’d be good at this or that, but they don’t always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician.” — Katherine Johnson, NASA
In 1938, Johnson desegregated the West Virginia University graduate school by becoming the first African American woman to matriculate there. (Two other black students — both male — were also selected to integrate the graduate school at that time.) After obtaining her graduate degree, Johnson went on to become a math teacher because it was the only option for her at the time. She later left teaching, married, and become a stay-at-home mother of three.
In 1935, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — which was the predecessor to NASA — began hiring women as “computers” to measure and calculate the results of wind tunnel tests [NASA]. (This was the age before electronic computers.) Years later, NACA expanded hiring to black women, and Johnson was informed of this opportunity by a relative. She applied but was too late. She applied again the following year and was accepted.
In 1953, Johnson began working at the Langley Research Center at NACA. Her specialty at the center was to compute the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to enter space. Years later, her skills continued to be sought even after electronic computers came to existence.
Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. … Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space. — NASA
Katerine Johnson went on to receive numerous honors and retired from the agency in 1986. Last year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, by President Barack Obama. Then in May of this year, NASA honored Johnson with a building at the Langley Research Center dedicated in her name. Today, Johnson is 97 and enjoying her retirement.