Black History Pathfinder Profile: Katherine Johnson

Creola Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and NASA Aerospace Technologist. Katherine Johnson’s complex calculations helped America win the space race in 1961 when Alan Shepherd became the first American to go into space. Johnson calculated his trajectory and the path he would take from launch to landing. Her calculations for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962 were critical to the success of the mission. Many of NASA’s first space missions were made possible by Katherine Johnson’s calculations.

Johnson graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 then she became a math teacher. She was hired at what would become NASA in 1953 and put in a pool of “Black Woman Computers” responsible for reading data and making mathematical calculations. Katherine Johnson’s capacity to work with complex calculations stood out and she later became an aerospace technologist for NASA. Her position required her to calculate the flight trajectories and launch windows for many spaceflights. It is a field she remained in for 30 years.

Johnson’s extraordinary mathematical abilities contributed to many of NASA’s major moments in history. She contributed to the 1969 moon landing, and the following year she helped ensure the safe return of stranded astronauts on the aborted Apollo 13 moon mission. She also did work on the Space Shuttle program and worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

Katherine Johnson was honored several times over during her lifetime. She earned three Special Achievement Awards during her 33 years with NASA. On November 24, 2015 President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She was profiled in the award winning film, Hidden Figures. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017. Johnson died on February 24, 2020. She was 101 years old.

The Ellison for Congress team salutes Katherine Johnson for her genius, her drive, and her determination to succeed as an African-American woman in a traditionally white, male dominated industry.