Katherine G. Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. By the age of 13, Katherine was so brilliant with numbers and calculation that she was moved ahead several grades to jumpstart her road to college. At age 18 she enrolled herself into the historically black West Virginia State and quickly excelled in the math curriculum there. With the help of mentor, W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, Katherine graduated with the highest honors from the college in 1937 and obtained a PhD in Mathematics. Upon graduating, Katherine started teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
Two Years later, Katherine left her teaching job after being selected as one of three people to be the first black students offered enrollment in the graduate program at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. After the first semester of the math graduate program, Katherine decided to leave the school and focus on starting a family and didn’t return to teaching until her three daughters got older. In 1952, by the suggestion of a relative, Katherine pursued another great opportunity.
Her and her husband moved their family to Newport News for Katherine to pursue a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Two weeks into Katherine’s tenure in the office, fellow West Virginian, Dorothy Vaughan assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division making Katherine’s position with the committee permanent. For the next four years, Katherine did very detailed analysis and investigative work for the committee until the unfortunate passing of her husband in 1956.
In 1962, NASA (formerly NACA) began preparations of an orbital mission that would send astronaut John Glenn into space. This project would soon become the most important work Katherine Johnson has ever done. The orbital mission would require a network of computers and fully designed system software that could link tracking stations around the world to the IBM computers based in Washington D.C., Bermuda and Cape Canaveral. While forming the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineer to, “Get the girl.”, referring to Katherine. The technology being utilized in the new programs had engineers, as well as Glenn, nervous. This type of thing had never been done before. Glenn had Katherine assigned to manually run (by hand) all of the numbers that the computer programs were running to ensure their accuracy. John Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a milestone for the United Stated of America.
After 33 years at Langley, Katherine retired in 1986. In 2015, Katherine was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her brilliant contributions to the world’s aerospace technology.
Learn more about Katherine G. Johnson in our Thematic Matrix for August under Academic Theme “Initiative”.