In her more than three decades of service to the American space program, Katherine Johnson, née Katherine Coleman, also known as Katherine Goble (1939–56), was an American mathematician who calculated and examined the flight paths of numerous spacecraft. She was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and passed away on February 24, 2020, in Newport News, Virginia. Her efforts were essential in the Moon mission.

Who Was Katherine Johnson?

A college graduate at age 18, Katherine Johnson made the most of the few educational options available to African Americans. In 1952, she started working as an aeronautical “computer,” and after NASA was established, she carried out the calculations that sent astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s and to the moon in 1969. After receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, Johnson’s life story was told in a book and a feature film the following year. On February 24, 2020, she passed away at the age of 101.

At NASA Johnson was a member of the Space Task Group. In 1960, she coauthored a paper on orbital calculations with one of the group’s engineers. It was the first time a woman in her division was recognized as an author of a research report. During her career, Johnson wrote or cowrote 26 research reports.

Johnson was also instrumental in NASA’s Mercury program of crewed spaceflights (1961–63). In 1961, she calculated the flight path for Freedom 7, the spacecraft that carried the first American astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., into space. The following year, at the request of John Glenn, Johnson verified that the electronic computer had correctly planned his flight. Glenn went on to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth aboard Friendship 7. Johnson was also a member of the team that calculated where and when to launch the rocket for the Apollo 11 mission, which sent the first three men to the Moon in 1969. Johnson later worked on the space shuttle program. She left NASA in 1986.

Early Years and Education of Katherine Johnson

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She breezed through her classes and completed the eighth grade by the age of ten, a bright child with a gift for numbers. Despite the fact that her town no longer offered classes for African Americans, her father, Joshua, drove the family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she attended high school.

Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) in Institute, West Virginia, where she encountered a hands-on faculty. Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, was determined to prepare Johnson to become a research mathematician. She graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French at the age of 18.

The following year, Johnson was one of three students who helped to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate school in Morgantown. However, she found the environment less welcoming than it had been at Institute, and she never finished her program there.

NASA Pioneer

Johnson was among those tasked with determining how to get a human into space and back in 1958, when NACA was renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The following year, she remarried to decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson.

For Johnson, calculating space flight came down to basic geometry: “The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” she said. “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a specific location, they were calculating when it should begin. “Let me do it,” I said. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll make it happen.

Awards and Legacy of Katherine Johnson

Johnson received numerous honors for her groundbreaking work. Among them are the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award in 1967 and the National Technical Association’s 1997 Mathematician of the Year. She also holds honorary degrees from SUNY Farmingdale, Capitol College in Maryland, Old Dominion University in Virginia, and West Virginia University.

President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Johnson in November 2015. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, was published in 2016 and celebrated the little-known story of Johnson and her fellow African American computers. Hidden Figures (2016), starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, was also adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film.

A year later, in September 2017, NASA honored Johnson, 99, with the dedication of a new research building named after her, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Johnson, her family, and friends attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building, which is part of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

“We’re here to honor the legacy of one of the most admired and inspirational people ever associated with NASA,” Langley Director David Bowles said in a press release. “I can’t think of a better tribute to Mrs. Johnson’s character and accomplishments than this building bearing her name.”

Johnson’s humble response to having a building named after her was delivered with a laugh: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re insane.”

Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures and keynote speaker, said of the “human computers,” “We are living in a present that they willed into existence with their pencils, slide rules, mechanical calculating machines — and, of course, their brilliant minds.”

Spouse and Children of Katherine Johnson

Johnson married James Francis Goble in 1939, and the couple had three daughters: Joylette, Katherine, and Constance.

Death of Katherine Johnson

Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020. She was 101 years old.

What are 3 interesting facts about Katherine Johnson?

Katherine Johnson Facts for Kids

  • Katherine Johnson was well-known for her work at NASA….
  • Katherine had three children: Joylette, Constance, and Katherine.
  • Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by ex-President Barack Obama in 2015 for her contributions to America’s progress.

How did Katherine Johnson change the world?

Johnson performed trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission, America’s first human spaceflight, in May 1961. She famously checked the computer’s math for John Glenn’s historic first orbital spaceflight by an American in February 1962, when digital computers were relatively new and untested.

What did Katherine Johnson do to be famous?

During her career, Johnson wrote or cowrote 26 research reports. Johnson was also instrumental in NASA’s Mercury program of crewed spaceflights (1961–63). In 1961, she calculated the flight path for Freedom 7, the spacecraft that carried the first American astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., into space.

What was Katherine Johnson famous quote?

“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will fade from public view, but science, engineering, and technology will endure. And there will always be mathematics.”

What was the most important thing Katherine Johnson?

She calculated the routes for the spacecraft to orbit (circle) Earth and land on the Moon. NASA used Katherine’s math, and it worked! NASA launched astronauts into Earth orbit. Her math later assisted in sending astronauts to and from the Moon.

What makes Katherine Johnson a hero?

Johnson assisted in the geometry calculations for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight, the United States’ first human spaceflight. She also assisted in the completion and verification of the calculations for John Glenn’s flight in 1962, which was the first successful orbit in space.

What did Katherine Johnson fight for?

She tutored students and advocated for greater access to STEM education for Black girls. Katherine left NASA in 1986. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hidden Figures, a film based on her life, was released in 2016.

What was unusual about Katherine Johnson?

She was the first Black female student to enroll. Johnson enrolled as a graduate math student but dropped out before completing her degree to start a family. Johnson started working for NASA nearly fifteen years later.

What kind of math did Katherine Johnson use?

—- Katherine Johnson (NASA 1969)

According to the book (and film) Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson led a team of African-American women who calculated the necessary trajectory from Earth to the Moon for the US Apollo space program. They used Euler’s method for this.

Where did Katherine Johnson Live

Johnson, who had six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, lived in Hampton, Virginia. She encouraged her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology.

Where was Katherine Johnson living when she died?

Johnson, who died on Monday at the age of 101 in a retirement home in Newport News, Va., calculated the precise trajectories that would allow Apollo 11 to land on the moon in 1969 and return to Earth after Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk.

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