Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. She skipped several grades in elementary school due to her exceptional abilities with numbers. After high school, she was handpicked to be one of three African American students to help integrate one of West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1935, Johnson began working at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley Laboratory. Two weeks later, she was reassigned to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division.
The 1957 launch of the Soviet Satellite Sputnik changed the world by kicking off the space race between the two world powers. However, it had an even greater effect on Katherine Johnson’s life. She provided some of the math for the document Notes on Space Technology, which was published in 1958. In 1960, Johnson worked with Ted Skopinski to coauthor Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. By doing so, she became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to ever receive credit for authoring a research report. Johnson later did trajectory analysis for Freedom 7, which was launched in May of 1961 and was the first American human spaceflight. Alan Shepard became the first American to go into space.
While all of these achievements are extraordinary, Katherine Johnson is probably most well-known for her work with the 1962 orbital mission of John Glenn in Friendship 7. The mission required computers that were programmed with the orbital equations to controlled the trajectory of the capsule, from blast off to splash down. However, the computers experienced frequent blackouts and glitches. As a part of the preflight preparations, John Glenn demanded that Johnson test the equations that had been programmed into the computers by hand. The mission was a success and helped turn the space race in favor of the United States.
Katherine Johnson eventually retired from NASA in 1986 after 33 years. She claims that she loved her job every single day. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Johnson is still alive today, aged 98.