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No. 55 / 2017
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Mrs. Johnson was born on
August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur
Springs, West Virginia. She was excep-
tionally smart and fascinated by num-
bers. By the time she was ten years old,
she was a high school freshman and
skipped grades to graduate from high
school at 14 and from college at 18.
In 1953, after spending years as a
teacher and a stay-at-home mom, she
began working for NASA’s predeces-
sor, the National Advisory Commit-
tee for Aeronautics, or NACA. The
NACA hired women for the tedious
and precise work of measuring and
calculating the results of wind tunnel
tests. These women had the job title of
“computer.” During World War II, the
NACA expanded this eort to include
African-American women. By 1953
the growing demands of early space
research meant there were openings for
African-American computers at Lang-
ley Research Center’s Guidance and
Navigation Department – and Kath-
erine Johnson found the perfect place
to put her extraordinary mathematical
skills to work.
She continued to work at NASA until
1986 combining her math talent with
electronic computer skills. Her calcula-
tions proved as critical to the success of
the Apollo Moon landing program and
the start of the Space Shuttle program,
as they did to those rst steps on the
country’s journey into space. She has
received many honorary doctorates as
well as the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter
Spacecraft Operations team award (for
pioneering work in the eld of navi-
gation problems supporting the ve
spacecraft that orbited and mapped
the moon in preparation for the Apollo
program). On November 24, 2015, she
received the nation’s highest civilian
award, the Presidential Medal of Free-
dom, from President Barack H. Obama.
This past May, NASA named a new
building after Johnson on the 55th
anniversary of John Glenn’s trip into
space, since it would not have been
possible without her. In January
2017, Hidden Figures, a movie about
Johnson and the other African-Ameri-
can women working as “human com-
puters”, will hit theaters.
As a computer, she calculated the trajec-
tory for Alan Shepard, the rst American
in space. Even after NASA began using
electronic computers, John Glenn requested
that she personally recheck the calculations
made by the new electronic computers
before the ight aboard Friendship 7 – the
mission on which he became the rst
American to orbit the Earth.
www.popsci.com; https://www.nasa.gov/
feature/katherine-johnson-the-girl-who-
loved-to-count
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