If you don’t think girls and women are good at math, think again. Physicist and mathematician Katherine G. Johnson made a significant mark in history at NASA, becoming one of the only women to work closely with the space program. A native of West Virginia, Johnson was born to a family that had to go the extra mile for education…literally. There were no schools in her town that taught Black children past the eighth grade, so her father moved Johnson and her siblings to a town 125 miles away.
In appreciation of his sacrifice, Johnson worked hard, graduating from West Virginia High school at 14 and from West Virginia State University at 18. A math prodigy, she would go to work, literally, as a “computer” for Langley Research Center, a part of NACA – the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was later changed to NASA.
Johnson and the many other women at Langley Air Force Center were described as a “math whizzes in skirts.” Her all-female team would perform mathematical calculations and read the data from the black boxes of planes. It was only on a day where she was asked to fill in on the all-male flight research team that Johnson made her way up the aeronautics ladder.
Her performance was so amazing that her superiors “forgot” to return her to the women’s math pool. From there, she took on other projects like calculating the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1959. And in 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Katherine Johnson to verify the computer’s results.
She would also calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969.
Now 95, Johnson is retired, but in aeronautics history, she is one of only a few individuals referred to with the honored title of human “computer.”