Katherine Johnson (née Coleman) was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918. She excelled academically, finishing high school at the age of 14 and graduating summa cum laude from West Virginia State College with a double major in mathematics and French when she was 18. Following a brief stint working as a public school teacher, Johnson became the first African American woman admitted to graduate school at West Virginia University, enrolling in the graduate mathematics programme.

In 1953, Johnson started working at the all-Black West Area Computing section of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become the space agency NASA. In addition to the computing pool, the toilets and cafeteria at Langley were also racially segregated at the time. Johnson refused to use the “colored” toilets and ate lunch at her desk.

Within two weeks of working at Langley, Johnson's talent landed her a position in the Flight Research Division. Over the next four years, she worked alongside aeronautical engineers analysing data from flight tests.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and in April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth. Meanwhile, at NACA (which had since become NASA), Johnson had been working on the trajectory analysis for the US’s first human space flight. In May 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first US citizen and second person in the world to go to space.

Less than a year later, NASA was preparing for the mission that would see John Glenn become the first US astronaut to orbit Earth. The agency was relying on a network of computers, programmed with orbital equations that would control the trajectory of Glenn’s capsule. As part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” – referring to Johnson – insisting that she run the numbers through the same equations by hand to check the computer’s calculations. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,”

Johnson went on to join the Space Mechanics Division, where she calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, and worked on key calculations that helped synchronise the mission’s lunar lander with the moon-orbiting command and service module. Her work helped the US become the first country to land a person on the moon on 20 July 1969.

During her career, Johnson authored multiple research papers and received numerous awards and accolades, including the 2015 US Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Barack Obama. In 2016, NASA named a new computational research facility after her.

[Layal Liverpool, New Scientist]

Mona Evans
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