Hidden No More: A Pioneer, Mathematician, and Human Computer
Katherine Johnson, an accomplished mathematician, was an early pioneer at NASA. She is known for her decades of work calculating flight paths for NASA’s manned missions to space and the Moon. At age 97, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.
One of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools in 1939, Johnson broke barriers throughout her career. As one of the few African American women at NASA during the early years of the space race, Johnson encountered both racism and sexism. Despite these challenges, Johnson had a long and successful career at NASA’s Langley Research Center, authoring or co-authoring 26 research reports during her 33 years with the agency.
I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, "Well, the girls don't usually go." and I said, "Well, is there a law?" They said, "No." So then my boss said, "Let her go."
Building a Trusted Future
In 1962, when John Glenn prepared to become the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, humans had been traveling to space for only a year. Glenn, like many astronauts, did not fully trust the new IBM computers that NASA used to calculate his spaceship’s orbital flight path. Glenn demanded that the engineers “get the girl,” refusing to proceed with the Friendship 7mission unless the “human computer,” Katherine Johnson, verified the machine’s calculations first.
Johnson continued to play an important role in the success of NASA’s early manned spaceflights.
She calculated the rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and Command Module for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
And as the nation anxiously watched, NASA relied on Johnson’s research and computations to bring the crew of Apollo 13 safely home to Earth.
After the Apollo program, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle and Landsat satellite programs before retiring in 1986. Her contributions to NASA were later depicted in the film Hidden Figures.
Get the girl. If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.