Celebrating the Life and Career of Katherine Johnson

Feb. 24, 2020

Celebrating the Life and Career of Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson celebrates her 98th Birthday today August 26th and a historical marker and bench was unveiled to mark the occasion. The event took place by the Virginia Air and Space Center, NASA Langley’s visitor center in Hampton, Va.

Katherine Johnson passed away Feb. 24, 2020, after living a life filled with trail-blazing achievements. Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of the breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, by thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself, graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia. 

In 1953, Johnson began working in the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. Just two weeks into her tenure in the office, she was assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, and Katherine’s temporary position soon became permanent.

In 1957, Johnson provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel, and Katherine, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, “came along with the program” as the NACA became NASA later that year. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

In this image, she celebrates her 98th birthday, where a historical marker and bench were unveiled to mark the occasion. The event took place by the Virginia Air and Space Center at NASA Langley’s visitor center.

Image Credit: NASA

Last Updated: Feb. 24, 2020

Editor: Yvette Smith

31 thoughts on “Celebrating the Life and Career of Katherine Johnson

  1. Hidden Figures is the 2016 American biographical drama film about black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions. Excellent movie…was a 5 out 5 stars for me. I just might watch it again, in her memory.

    • Plus 42 for Hidden Figures! I loved that movie for any number of reasons. I think I’ll re-watch it this weekend, as a matter of fact. I would also recommend Proof and A Beautiful Mind as worth anyone’s time.

  2. She was among the best of the best. That was not because of her gender or her race, neither was it in spite of her gender or her race. Either view would demean and diminish who she was.

    • Exactly, neither sex nor color. In the best case, diversity is a low information standard of judgment. In the worst case, it is a lightly veiled class of bigotry that denies individual dignity.

      • Well she certainly has a record to be proud of.

        Now am I to understand that the little old lady in the middle is the “black” person in question? Maybe not actually being black may have helped her over come much of racial biases of that era.

        It never ceases to amaze me how someone with less melanin than I have manages to get to be “black” in USA.

        Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, by thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself, graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

        I can’t understand what the race angle is supposed to be on all the black , black, black rhetoric of this article. Is the achievement that, as someone who was hardly black at all, she managed to gain entry to institutions racially biased towards taking black people.

        I’m lost !

        • I lived in West Virginia for 12 years. While racism was much diminished when I lived there, it was prevalent during the time she was growing it. It truly limited your opportunities. It was less a matter of how much melanin you had, and more that you had any discernible black genetics. I am glad that the barriers were being broken.

          • Well said Loren.

            We cannot apply current understanding and wishes on what it was like in those days. Other less-sung standouts like Louis Gregory deserve a page in each history book where by sheer competence and persistence, they showed what it is to be human.

            We all face adversity, different in scale and type. It is wonderful to be trusted. Honesty is the foundation of all virtues.

            That Glenn had more confidence in her than buggy software is interesting and indicative. After all, what happened to Neil Armstrong’s computer just as he was putting down on the moon? Exactly what Glenn feared. Stanislav Petrov had the same attitude in 1983 (fortunately for us all). People are smarter than software.

        • Greg, what you’re seeing in that picture is an elderly woman with white hair. I don’t know what Katherine Johnson looked like when she was younger but many black women tried look more white for better job prospects in times when racism was more prevalent. The movie takes some liberties with her true story but is largely accurate and wonderfully inspiring! It would be great to do a double feature of it with “October Sky,” one of the few Jake Gyllenhaal movies I would have in my collection!
          Sadly, racism like slavery is making a comeback due to the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Progressive Religion of Hate and Environmentalism! Since it, like other forms of fear and hatred, is rooted in ignorance; racism is best fought by shining sunlight and Christian love and charity on it!

        • Katherine Johnson went to black schools which were set up because the mainstream schools were racially biased AGAINST black people.

          * KJ was born in 1918.
          * she attended high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College, graduated at age 14.
          * she enrolled in the college itself, graduated with highest honors in 1937, at age 18.
          *she took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
          *she was handpicked to be one of three black students (the only woman) to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools (because she was really good), in 1939, age 20-21.
          * she began working in the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory, 1953.

          I suggest that in the 1920s-1950s, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind in West Virginia that Katherine Johnson was black. The actual hue of her skin would be just one clue; the others would be family, church, residence, associations, her father’s job etc. Everyone would ‘know’ just which families and individuals were ‘black’ or ‘white’. With the segregation laws and rules, everyone, black and white, would have been acutely attuned to who was eligible to sit at the front of the bus, go to the white schools etc.

          As an aside, while there is no doubt that Katherine and the other ‘colored computers’ were brilliant (graduating from college at 18! most people don’t start till they are 18), the role of women as human ‘computers’ elsewhere is generally unrecognised. An aunt of mine worked in a big insurance company from the 1940s-70s, supervising a large room full of women working at manual, then electric, calculating machines doing actuarial number-crunching – I visited once. I remember expressing surprise that she retired at a relatively young age (she loved the work), She replies: ‘My girls were replaced by a single computer, and they said I was too old to learn the new technology’.

          • Just keep in mind that “white people” were racist towards each other. “No Irish need apply”. Italians were racists towards other nationality, Jewish people were hated by all. Polish, Germans, and all nationalities had and in some cases still have animosity towards other races. We need to put all this to rest.

            What made the movie Hidden Figure excellent was that racism was in it, it wasn’t about Racism. As Richard said above “She was among the best of the best. That was not because of her gender or her race, neither was it in spite of her gender or her race. Either view would demean and diminish who she was.”

          • I heard a radio programme about this which said that computing in the early days was regarded as secretarial work and so was largely done by women but as it gained status the jobs were taken by men though no different skills were required.

  3. Another unsung hero deserving of more publicity. A name I’d never heard before.
    It’s a bad day when you don’t learn something new. This has been a very good day already

  4. Was this the movie? She used to disappear from her work station throughout the day for what seemed to be too long a time. Eventually she was asked to explain her actions. She said she went to the toilet but that her building did not have a ladies toilet, so she had to run to the next available ladies toilet which was “miles” away on the other side of the complex. And run back again. They soon installed a ladies toilet in her building – another one of Katherine Johnson’s achievements.

    • Yes it is did movie. In fact her building did not have color ladies toilet. And then Kevin Costner goes and destroy the panel about color ladies toilet saying “here we all pee the same color”!

      I just watched it this week-end with my eldest son of 16….

      I agree with Richard great comment about race and gender “she was among the best of the best… ” Thank you Richard for this quote.

      I will also say that she did not let her race and her gender in the path of her passion and life.

  5. I’ll be another one watching Hidden Figures again! Great film about an inspirational lady and her colleagues.

  6. My daughter teaches at a primary school here in the UK. The two copies of Hidden Figures in the library are in use most of the time.

  7. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”

    Folks these days have blind faith in computers. For me, it is little things, like catching an error and being told, ‘That’s what the computer says.’ I’m guessing that less than 1% of people have the inclination to even do any kind of sanity check on what the computer says. It’s nice to be reminded of a bygone time when that wasn’t the case.

    • Many younger readers would think John Glenn an old fuddy duddy for wanting this manual check. My computer was a sliderule when I graduated in engineering. You certainly needed to have a very good idea what the answer should be, because you had to know where to put the decimal point! This made me (and fellow engineers) very good back of envelope estimators in discussing new ideas, concepts, feasibility, etc. And of course, all calculations needed this kind of verification.

      • Gary, I remember the great pride I felt when I got my first TI calculator! It was a hand-me-down from my father, an EE PhD, who had to get the latest iteration for his work. I think I still have it in box somewhere; I hope my circular slide rule is keeping it company. Years later I bought a construction calculator for figuring rafter and hip cut angles and it had as much power but sometimes the TI was easier to use for oddball cuts like bastard hips and valleys. There is something intensely satisfying about precutting all the rafters for a complicated roof and having them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle!

  8. In a time when science is under siege, Katherine Johnson is a hero for all those who value rationality, logic and contribution to the betterment of society regardless of gender, race, nationality or social class. Spock would have been proud and would not have cared a fig that her blood was not green. Nor do I. What a nice story for WUWT to cover.

Comments are closed.