Katherine Johnson, (born August 26, 1918, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, U.S.), American mathematician who calculated and interpreted the flight paths of several spacecraft during her more than three decades with the U.S. space program. Her industry helped convey astronauts to the Moon.
KATHERINE JOHNSON ON KRNN, 8/26: One of NASA’s human ‘computers,’ performing the complex calculations that enabled humans to successfully achieve space flight, Katherine Johnson was born on this date in 1918. You can count on a 1-2-3-4 playlist on Crosscurrents, 8/26 at 8 am.
In 1939 Johnson was chosen to be one of the first three African American students to enroll in a graduate program at West Virginia University. Later she was a member of a group of NASA employees called “computers,” made up of African American women who exceptional in mathematics and problem-solving.
Johnson also played an significant role in NASA’s Mercury program (1961–63) of manned spaceflights. In 1961 she calculated the path for Freedom 7, the spacecraft that put the first U.S astronaut in space, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. The following year, at the application of John Glenn, Johnson verified that the electronic computer had planned his flight correctly. Glenn subsequently made history aboard Friendship 7, becoming the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth. Johnson was also part of the team that calculated where and when to launch the rocket for the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, which sent the first three men to the Moon.
When asked to name her memorable contribution to space exploration, Katherine Johnson talks about the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says. In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.