We're celebrating Black History Month by highlighting black scientists! Each Thursday of the month on the blog, we'll feature a new black scientist that has or is changing the world as we know it (also featured on our Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn). Our second highlighted black scientist is Katherine Johnson; learn about her work and accomplishments below!
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent United States crewed spaceflights. During her 33-year career at NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist."
Katherine showed strong mathematical abilities from an early age. Because Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, her family arranged for their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. This school was on the campus of West Virginia State College. Katherine was enrolled when she was ten years old, and the family split their time between Institute during the school year and White Sulphur Springs in the summer. Later, she would be the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia.
In 1953, she began working at NASA. Her work included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. She was known as a "human computer" for her tremendous mathematical capability and ability to work with space trajectories with such little technology and recognition at the time.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she was presented the Silver Snoopy Award by NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin and a NASA Group Achievement Award. She was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2019, Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress. In 2021, she was inducted posthumously into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Interested in learning more about Katherine Johnson? Visit https://www.nasa.gov/centers-and-facilities/langley/katherine-johnson-biography/. Come back next Thursday for a new blog and learn about more black scientists that are changing the world as we know it.