Creola Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was a talented African American mathematician and NASA employee whose calculations helped set the first crewed U.S. spaceflights into orbit.
From an early age, Johnson revealed amazing mathematical abilities. Although Greenbrier County did not offer public schooling for African American students past the eighth grade, her parents were determined to support her talent and enrolled her at a high school in Institute, West Virginia when she was 10 — splitting their time between there and their home in White Sulphur Springs. By 1937, she graduated from West Virginia State with degrees in mathematics and French at the age of just 18.
She began working as a teacher, but her life would soon change dramatically. At a family gathering in 1952, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians — including African Americans. Johnson accepted a job offer from the agency in June 1953 and was initially assigned to Dorothy Vaughan’s group.
A Rocketing Career
During her 33-year career at NASA (and its predecessor NACA), she earned herself a reputation for acing complex manual calculations and pioneering the use of computers. The space agency refers to her historical role as “one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist.”
“You lose your curiosity when you stop learning.”
By 1958, she had moved into the Spacecraft Controls Branch. There, she calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights. The highlights? Calculations for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit — not to mention rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the moon. She also contributed to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program and worked on plans for a mission to Mars.
Towards the end of her life, these contributions began to receive the recognition they deserve. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Silver Snoopy Award from NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin, and a NASA Group Achievement Award.
Johnson & Vaughan
From 1953 to 1958, Johnson works as a “human computer,” analyzing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft — initially alongside mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.
“If she says the numbers are good…”
When NASA uses electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around the earth, the astronaut refuses to fly unless Katherine Johnson verifies the calculations.
A Hidden Figure
Katherine Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” based on Margot Lee Shetterly's “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016).”