Katherine Johnson (1918–2020) was an American mathematician who played a crucial role in the early years of the United States space program, particularly during NASA’s Mercury and Apollo missions. Her work involved complex calculations of orbital mechanics, trajectory analysis, and other essential computations for space missions.
Here are some key points about Katherine Johnson’s life and contributions:
- Early Life and Education: Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French from West Virginia University in 1937.
- Work at NACA/NASA: Johnson began her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, in 1953. She worked as a “human computer” performing complex mathematical calculations for the engineers.
- Space Race Contributions: During the Space Race, Katherine Johnson’s calculations were crucial for the success of several historic missions, including Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight, the first American in space, and John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, the first American to orbit the Earth. Her work was instrumental in determining the trajectories, launch windows, and return paths for these missions.
- Apollo Moon Missions: Johnson’s contributions extended to the Apollo program, where her calculations were vital for the trajectory analysis and launch windows for the lunar missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
- Recognition and Awards: Johnson’s work was initially unheralded, but she gained recognition later in life. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She was also featured in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later adapted into a film of the same name.
- Legacy: Katherine Johnson broke racial and gender barriers, especially as an African American woman working in a field dominated by white men. Her contributions to space exploration helped pave the way for future generations of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Katherine Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101. Her legacy continues to inspire and is a testament to the importance of diversity and inclusion in scientific and technological advancements.