Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born on the 26th of August in 1918 when America was deeply segregated due to the Jim Crow laws. This meant that public services like toilets, schools and buses often had lower quality for African-Americans to racially discriminate against them.  And this was happening a century after slavery had been abolished. Despite this, she helped to make and made multiple breakthroughs in her lifetime.

Johnson’s first breakthrough was when she was offered a spot as one of the three first black students in West Virginia University which was the state’s flagship school. This was a result of West Virginia deciding to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939.  The idea to desegregate schools would start to gain traction over a decade later. 

Fast forward to the summer of 1953, she was working for NASA (formerly known as NACA) in the all-black West Area Computing section at NACA’s Langley Laboratory. She described her job there as a “computer when the computer wore a skirt”.  Katherine Johnson made her name by providing some of the maths for the 1958 document ‘Notes on Space Technology’ which was a compilation of a collection of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. The engineers from those groups would become the beehive of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official step into space travel. She helped provide a stepping stone for American space travel. Furthermore she had a part in America’s first human spaceflight by doing trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7 and when she and engineer Ted Skopinski co authored a report, it would become the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had been credited as an author of a research report.

However her most famous contribution to the Space Race was in 1962 when NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn. Actual computers had been introduced by then and had done all the calculations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown. Despite this the astronauts felt cautious about entrusting their lives to an electronic machine which could have had a hiccup, this resulted in Glenn asking engineers to “get the girl(Johnson)” to do the same calculations but by hand. “If she says they’re good then I’m ready to go” was what Glenn said. His flight would end up being a huge triumph and would go on to mark a turning point in the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union. In addition her calculations were crucial to the success of the Apollo Moon Landings as well as the Space Shuttle Program. She said that she “went to work every day for 33 years happy” and never said “I don’t want to go to work”.  

Katherine Johnson retired after working at Langley for 33 years in 1968 and at the age of 97 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, by former President Barack Obama. She died in 2020 at 101 years old having done many remarkable acts and having a building at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia named after her.

Hello! My name’s Eloise and I am currently a Yr 11 student at Bromley High School. Ever since I was little, my dad has made me spend some of my evenings watching a history documentary with him in order to expand my knowledge. It mostly went in one ear and out the other but it has somewhat influenced what subjects I like, one of them being history! Learning about what has happened to make the world we live in today truly fascinates me and it has improved my essay writing by a lot. Thank you for reading my piece on Katherine Johnson.