Decades before astronaut Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to soar into space, and a decade before the first woman cosmonaut rocketed into orbit at the dawn of the Space Age, mathematics dynamo Katherine Johnson was working as a “human computer” at the agency that existed before NASA was even known as NASA. In addition, during the height of segregation, she was an African-American working as a professional at the top of her field. Known for solving issues critical to the success of programs encompassing Mercury, Apollo, and Shuttle, the 97-year-old was rewarded with the nation’s highest civilian honor for her efforts in space exploration. On Tuesday, Nov. 24, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She was one of 17 who received this distinction.
A prodigy who started high school at age 10 and graduated from college by age 18, Johnson stated, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” Johnson’s early career at NASA had more to do with wind tunnel testing than it had to do with spaceflight. The space agency provided historical context describing how Johnson and other “human computers” became employed at what would become NASA. During World War II, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) hired African-American women as “computers” (the actual job title) to aid in calculating the results of wind tunnel tests, which was described as “tedious and precise work.” At the time, electronic computers were not readily available. In a 2008 NASA interview, she related humorously she was a computer “when the computer wore a skirt.”
By the early 1950s, the fledgling agency was looking toward pioneering space, and it was encouraged by the efforts put forth by the “computers.” NASA related, “The NACA was so pleased with the results that, unlike many organizations, they kept the women computers at work after the war. By 1953 the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department [in Virginia] – and [Johnson] found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.” Johnson had worked as a teacher, and at the time was a stay-at-home mother. She did not yet know she would contribute to the greatest exploration efforts known to humankind.
NASA, established in 1958 from NACA, was learning how to launch payloads and people into space from the ground up. In the 2008 interview Johnson said, “We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about. We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people.” Johnson and her colleagues literally “wrote the book” on how to get humans to space – and how to get them back home safely. Later, her efforts would aid in getting humans to the Moon and back.
Johnson’s many accomplishments were highlighted in a statement released by the White House: “Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the Earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the Moon.” NASA also underscored that Johnson’s work as a research mathematician contributed significantly to the Lunar Orbiter program, which saw five orbiters photograph and map the lunar surface; this program, in turn, helped engineers and researchers prepare for Apollo.
Johnson would stay at NASA for 33 years; by the time she departed the space agency, she had not only contributed directly to the greatest feats in human exploration, but also had seen several “glass ceilings” shattered in terms of gender and race. In the late 1960s, NASA had utilized the talents of several women engineers, including Frances “Poppy” Northcutt and Margaret Hamilton. Northcutt, a “human computer” like Johnson, had worked in Mission Control during the Apollo program, while Hamilton, a computer scientist at MIT, pioneered the vital guidance programming required for Apollo and Skylab.
Video Credit: NASA
By the mid-1970s, NASA was looking to hire a more diverse pool of astronauts. In 1978, NASA selected the first six women astronauts (Anna Fisher, Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Rhea Seddon, Shannon Lucid, and Kathryn Thornton), as well as the first African-American astronauts to fly into space (Fred Gregory, Guy Bluford, and Ron McNair). By the end of her NASA career in 1986, Johnson had seen the first women and African-American astronauts make spaceflights. Her accomplishments and presence in her field made these milestones in spaceflight diversity possible.
NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Dava Newman, is one of those indebted to Johnson’s accomplishments. Newman stated, “We are all so fortunate that Katherine insisted on asking questions, and insisted on relentlessly pursing the answers. We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial and gender barriers, she found the courage to say ‘tell them I’m coming.’ We are also fortunate that Katherine has chosen to take a leading role in encouraging young people to pursue education in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. Katherine was born on National Equality Day. Few Americans have embodied the true spirit of equity as profoundly or impacted the cause of human exploration so extensively. At NASA, we are proud to stand on Katherine Johnson’s shoulders.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, one of the first African-American astronauts (selected in 1980, he would go on to make four shuttle flights, commanding two), also touched upon Johnson’s pioneering spirit in a statement.
“Katherine Johnson once remarked that even though she grew up in the height of segregation, she didn’t think much about it because ‘I didn’t have time for that… [I] don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.’ The truth in fact, is that Katherine is indeed better. She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country, and because of the trail she blazed, young Americans like my granddaughters can pursue their own dreams without a feeling of inferiority.
“Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space; it’s also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House. The entire NASA family is both proud of and grateful to Katherine Johnson, a true American pioneer who helped our space program advance to new heights, while advancing humanity’s march of progress ever forward.”