Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematical genius and early computing pioneer, used her love of numbers to create the pathway to one of the brightest careers in the sciences. Ms. Johnson was a part of a pair of NASA’s notable programs, and contributed greatly to the development of space exploration. Her story and that of her fellow pioneering NASA colleagues is told in the new movie Hidden Figures.
Johnson was born August 26, 1918 in West Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Johnson’s father, a farmer, and her mother, a schoolteacher, moved their family to the town of Institute so that their children would receive proper schooling. Johnson showed her affinity for numbers and mathematics when she was a young girl. In interviews, she’s explained that she had an obsessive need to count everything.
An exceptional student, Johnson graduated from high school at 14, then entered West Virginia State University. She left the university with degrees in French and mathematics. Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, who was then the third Black person to earn a Phd in mathematics, created a special analytic geometry course just for Johnson.
After a troublesome stint with graduate school that included combating racism in her home state, Johnson became a middle and high school math teacher. In 1953, Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.
Johnson was a research mathematician, responsible for deciphering complex data similarly as a computer would. She and a gathering of other women who worked at NACA’s Langley Research Center but Johnson was inquisitive to the point she began to stand out.
The book and movie Hidden Figures, out today, features Johnson’s accomplishments, as well as the ones by fellow NASA employees Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, Vaughn is played by Octavia Spencer and Jackson is portrayed by Janelle Monae. Vaughn would become the first African-American supervisor at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Vaughn was a pioneer in computing at the agency. Jackson became NASA’s first Black female aerospace engineer.
Johnson’s knowledge of math became a valuable resource to the mostly all-male science staff. Johnson’s early training in analytic geometry helped her to contribute to one of the American space program’s most notable accomplishments. Her calculations helped determine astronaut John Glenn’s orbit in space, the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing and contributed to the space shuttle program. She retired from NASA in 1986.
Among the many awards Johnson has received are NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award, and she was a five-time recipient of the NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement Award.
In November of 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The AKA sorority sister lives in Hampton, Va. with her husband, Lt. Col. James A. Johnson, played in the movie by Mahershala Ali.