Science Heroes: Katherine Johnson

“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing. Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”- Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia, where the state was still deeply engrained in Southern Democratic Politics; segregation continued in many institutions, and discrimination continued against Black Americans. Although there were numerous challenges and barriers presented to Katherine as a young Black woman in post-Civil War America, her brilliance and intellect shined through all of the potential hardships. She learned quickly in her youth that not only did she love math, but she was exceptionally good at it. As she began counting everything from steps walked to plates washed, her parents quickly learned that their daughter was no ordinary child.

Katherine Johnson would find ways to incorporate math into her everyday life, and it quickly burgeoned into her passion. Johnson was so advanced in her education that she was ready to attend high school at the young age of 10, after being encouraged by her teachers to skip a few grades. However, her hometown in White Sulphur Springs, WV did not offer public schooling for Black children past the 8th grade. Her family, supportive of their daughter’s educational passion, decided to pack up and move 120 miles away to Institute, WV, so that Johnson would have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

By 15 years-old, Johnson started college at West Virginia State College, where she where she double-majored in Mathematics and French and graduated summa cum laude. Johnson became a teacher after graduating at 18 years old and shared her love of learning and mathematics with students. As West Virginia University began academic desegregation, Johnson was invited to do graduate work in Mathematics with two other Black students at a historically all-white institution. After spending a semester in the program, Johnson decided to leave and focus on her family, and got married in 1940 to James Goble. Johnson spent the next 12 years raising her three daughters who she is survived by today.

Katherine Johnson (2nd row, 2nd from the left) and her co-workers at NASA were considered “human computers.” [Source]

In 1952, Katherine Johnson learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics(NACA), a US federal agency that researched flight and aviation, was hiring individuals to solve math problems in the all-female all-Black Computing division of the Langley Laboratory, in Hampton, VA.  This division would eventually merge with what was previously an all-white computing division. The news of opportunities to perform calculations for flight tests rekindled Johnson’s interest in mathematics, so at 34 years old, she and her family moved to Virginia in 1953 to pursue being a “computer,” a job where she would be paid to solve math problems (because there were no computers like we have today)! These flight tests included the assessments of plane crashes, gust alleviation in aircraft, and trajectory calculations.

Johnson enveloped herself in her work at NACA, but unlike her fellow “computers,” she was incessantly curious, and consistently pushed herself to tackle more and more difficult challenges. She didn’t want to just compute calculations, she wanted to know the application behind them, so she started to attend meetings. Her curiosity earned her a transfer to a permanent position in the Flight Research Division of the laboratory. As space became the “new frontier,” NACA developed a special “Space Technology” committee, aimed at reaching beyond the federal government to educational institutions and companies to maximize expertise on the “race to space”. In 1958, NACA transformed from a federal agency into what we now know as NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The previously segregated workforce was now desegregated, yet women were still prevented from attending certain briefings. However, Johnson had contributed calculations used by engineers within the Space Technology group, so she pushed her colleagues to be included. Johnson stated on these briefings that, “I’d ask why I couldn’t go myself, and eventually they just got tired of answering all my questions and just let me in to the briefings.

Katherine Johnson at her desk in the NASA Langley Research Center with tools to help her with calculations. [Source]

After the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the employees of NASA were under immense pressure to successfully get a human being out into space. Johnson helped prepare the geometry calculations for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight, the United States’ first human spaceflight. She also helped to complete and verify the calculations for John Glenn’s flight in 1962, which was the first successful orbit in space. Glenn famously stated in reference to the calculations for his orbit that if Johnson “says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” This would be known as one of Katherine Johnson’s biggest accomplishments and contributions to the success and pioneering of NASA’s first orbital launch. Johnson contributed and authored over 25 research reports during her career, including co-authoring “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” which is the first time a woman received author credit in the Flight Division of NASA [1-3].

Retiring in 1986, Johnson spent 33 years at NASA’s Langley laboratory and her entire career advocating for students in STEM, encouraging generations of men and women to pursue aeronautics and mathematics. Johnson also obtained all this success while raising three daughters and experiencing the death of her first husband early in her career. It wasn’t until 1960 that a woman held an executive position in NASA, and in 1992 Mae Jemison became the first Black female astronaut. Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Johnson’s work for NASA continues to inspire generations of young women, and young Black women, to pursue higher education in STEM, no matter what obstacles you face. She passed away on February 24th, 2020 at the age of 101.

Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. [Source]

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

Read Katherine Johnson’s autobiography “Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson.”

Listen to “Encyclopedia Womannica” podcast’s STEMinists: Katherine Johnson episode.

Watch Robert Butler’s “Black Pioneers” series on Katherine Johnson.

For your space-loving kiddo, Brian Dunbar put together some kid-friendly fast facts about Katherine Johnson’s life and accomplishments.

Watch 2016’s film “Hidden Figures” that features Katherine Johnson and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who were the first female, Black employees for NASA during the “space race.”

Check out St. Andrew’s School of Mathematics and Statistics biography about Katherine Johnson.

WANT TO READ KATHERINE JOHNSON’S PUBLISHED RESEARCH?

[1] Skopinski, T. H., & Johnson, K. G. (1960). Determination of azimuth angle at burnout for placing a satellite over a selected earth position (Vol. 233). National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

[2] Young, J. W., Hamer, H. A., & Johnson, K. G. (1984). Decoupled control analysis of a large flexible space antenna with linear quadratic regulator comparisons. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/19840015607

[3] Johnson, K. G., & White, J. A. (1964). Approximate Solutions for Flight-path Angle of a Reentry Vehicle in The Upper Atmosphere.

Author’s Note:

            When I was first thinking about who my science heroes are, I realized that it was my biggest science hero of all who introduced me to Katherine Johnson and her incredible story. My grandfather, Allan McDonald, was employed by Morton Thiokol and NASA around the time that Katherine Johnson was approaching her retirement. He recalled to me once a time that he met her, and spoke of her incredible brilliance and contributions to the “space race.” My grandfather was a rocket scientist who worked on the Challenger, and is well known for his efforts to try to stop the launch due to concerns about the cold temperature’s impact on the O-Rings of the shuttle. Despite his warnings, the launch continued, and the fateful explosion of the Challenger remains to be a major event in United States history.

            My grandfather passed away very recently on March 6, 2021. As I have been writing this piece about the incredible Katherine Johnson, I remember the joy my grandfather had, telling his young science-loving  granddaughter, all about this incredible woman and her career as a successful scientist. I thank him for his role in the trajectory of my life, and for inspiring me to pursue a higher education in science.

Isabelle McDonald is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is interested in studying stereotypic and abnormal behaviors in dairy cattle. She is currently researching oral behavior patterns in dairy heifers. She’s also an avid dog-lover!

Additional References:

Dunbar, B. (2020). Katherine Johnson Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography

Shetterly, M.L. (2020). Katherine Johnson: NASA mathematician who calculated trajectories for early space flights. Nature, 579, 341.

Malcom, S.M. (2021). Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Science, 368(6491), 591. DOI: 10.1126/science.abc1546

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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