Katherine Johnson: A black woman with brains and skill!

Katheriene G Johnson1

Today we celebrate the life of Katherine Johnson. She is an African-American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician. She has contributed to America’s aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Her bravery and determination helped pave the way for African-American women in technical fields. Everyday is Black History.

a young Katheriene G Johnson

A young Katherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From a young age, Johnson enjoyed mathematics and could easily solve mathematical equations. After moving to Institute, West Virginia, she attended West Virginia State High School and graduated from high school at age fourteen. Johnson received her B.S. degree in French and mathematics in 1932 from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). At that time, Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics, created a special course in analytic geometry specifically for Johnson. In 1940, she attended West Virginia University to obtain a graduate degree. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. However, family issues kept her from completing the required courses. After college, Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia.

west-virginia-state_web. her college

West Virginia State University, where Katherine Johnson Attended College in the early 1930s; At that time, it was an all black college.

In June 1953, Katherine was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center… At first she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts.” Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, they forgot to return me to the pool. Johnson was still exposed to racial and genders barriers but ignored them. She was assertive, and asked to be included in editorial meetings. Women were never in editorial meetings, however her persuasion got her in, for she expressed her knowledge of the work and that she belonged there.


A young Katherine Johnson working at NASA.

At NASA, Johnson started work in the all-male Flight Mechanics Branch and later moved to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.NASA Depiction of Alan Shephard’s Mercury Freedom 7 Trajectory Calculated by Katherine Johnson

In 1959 and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer’s numbers. Ms. Johnson later worked directly with real computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite and on plans for a mission to Mars. In 1970 the Apollo 13 was in space and the ship was damaged. Johnson’s calculations helped bring the astronauts back to safety.

Apollo 13

The Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module in Space. Sector 4 Panel on the Right Side of the Craft Has Been Completely Blown Off. The astronauts where stuck in space. Katherine Johnson’s Trajectory Calculations Helped Bring the Apollo 13 Astronauts Safely Back to Earth in 1970

Johnson has received numerous awards and accolades for her work, courage, skills and work. These awards include a Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University and another from Capitol College, She also received a Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale. Johnson has received the NASA Langley Research Center Special Achievement Award five times. She also gained the Apollo Group Achievement Award, which included one of only 300 flags flown to the moon on board the Apollo 11, and many more.

During their trip, Claflin AstroCHEM students received the opportunity to meet several NASA trailblazers and heroes, including physicist and mathematician Catherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson meeting Claflin University AstroCHEM students.

Katherine Johnson is truly a visionary trailblazer. Her skill, perseverance and courage helped revolutionize the early space technology, concepts and practices. She has helped pave the way for so many black women in neuroscience, psychics, and mathematics and space.


Katherine Johnson (L) and Mae Jemison(R), first black woman in space.

She is a black woman who knows her worth for she did not allow the barriers of her gender or race to stop her from rising in her field. Each opportunity she was given she stamped her skill, knowledge and hard work, making her a name not to be forgotten. She made sure she was noticed and gained advancement because of it. Black women, Katherine Johnson is another example of the greatness we black women have. We have the power to deny our societal placement from depriving us of success. Black women fight it as Katherine Johnson has. Fight against the odds of inferiority, and degradation. We have the strength needed to succeed become great, revolutionize and create change. Tap into it black women. It begins with the will power within. Seize it and succeed. ~Know Your Worth~ -M. Millie

Former Astronaut Leland Melvin Honors Katherine Johnson at NASA Event in April 2011

Katherine Johnson with former astronaut Leland Melvin.

Watch an interview with Katherine Johnson here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8gJqKyIGhE


2 thoughts on “Katherine Johnson: A black woman with brains and skill!

  1. Awesomeeee!!! She’s such an inspiration to young women and a credit to the black race. It’s funny how I’ve never heard of her in any history class and I doubt that a lot of black youth know about her. So sad. But I am very proud of this sisters achievement. It’s give me hope for the future that one day I will become as great as her and be remembered for such great achievements.

    • YES SIS! I love that attitude. There are many great and unsung black women and men who we have not heard about in our history class. First of all in schools black children are not supposed to be taught to love themselves and embrace who they are. We are just taught every February about MLK, Harriet Tubman etc. Yes, all of these people are great, but there are so many more women and men who have done so much, and continue to do so much. I am happy you have been inspired and seek to be a visionaries. In the future we will talk about Danielle. 🙂

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