Last month, NASA dedicated its newest building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, to the now 99-year-old mathematician behind some of NASA’s biggest accomplishments.
From a young age Katherine Johnson was wildly curious about numbers, her curiosity driving her to excel in school despite racial and gender barriers. By age 14 she had graduated from high school and four years later, at age 18, she graduated from West Virginia State College. She then took time off from school to begin her family, having three daughters before returning to the mathematics work she loved. In 1953, she began working at NACA, the organization that later became NASA, as “computer.”
During her time as a human computer at NASA, Johnson assisted with getting the first American in space by calculating the trajectory of his trip and was the first woman to receive credit on a research report. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, refused to take off before Johnson had personally rechecked the calculations made by the electronic computers because he trusted her math talents more than the electronic computers of the time. Her contributions to NASA also led to the success of both the Apollo Moon landing and the beginning of the Space Shuttle program.
This past year wide ranging recognition was finally given to Johnson and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, with the release of the film “Hidden Figures” which highlighted their contributions in breaking down segregational barriers within NASA.
Despite her seemingly endless accomplishments, Johnson still maintains a sense of wide-eyed humility, saying at the ceremony “I like the stars, and the stories we were telling, and it was a joy to contribute to the literature that was going to come out, but little did I think it would go this far.”
Media Sources: Huffington Post 9/24/17, NASA 9/3/17, NASA History 11/24/15, The Independent 9/24/17