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Who Was Katherine Johnson? (Grades 5-8)

This article is for students grades 5-8.

Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician who worked for NASA from 1953 until 1986. She was a human computer. In a time when minorities held very few jobs in mathematics and science, Johnson was a trailblazer. Her work in calculating the paths for spaceships to travel was monumental in helping NASA successfully put an American in orbit around Earth. Then her work helped to land astronauts on the Moon.

Katherine Johnson

What Was Katherine Johnson’s Early Life Like?

As a very young girl, she loved to count things. She counted everything, from the number of steps she took to get to the road to the number of forks and plates she washed when doing the dishes.

Johnson was born with a love for mathematics. At a young age, she was very eager to go to school. Johnson vividly remembered watching her older siblings go to school, wishing so much that she could go with them. When Johnson finally did start school, she so excelled that by age 10, she was in high school. By age 15, she’d started college!

What Did She Study in College?

At West Virginia State College, Johnson became immersed in the math program. She loved being surrounded by smart people, she said, and knew all of the professors and students on campus. One of her math professors, the renowned Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, recognized Johnson’s bright and inquisitive mind. “You’d make a great research mathematician,” he told her. (A research mathematician does many things, one of which is solving large math problems.) Then Claytor helped her become one.

Johnson said, “Many professors tell you that you’d be good at this or that, but they don’t always help you with that career path. Professor Claytor made sure I was prepared to be a research mathematician.”

Claytor made sure that Johnson took all of the math classes she needed to pursue her life’s passion. He even created a class about the geometry of outer space—just for her. Geometry is the study of lines, angles and shapes.

At age 18, Johnson graduated with very high grades and degrees in mathematics and French.

What Did She Do After College?

When Johnson graduated from college, the United States was still segregated. During this time, “segregation” meant that different races were separated from each other in many places and activities. African Americans were rarely able to have jobs in mathematics and science. It was also very unusual for women of any race to have degrees in mathematics. At that time, the only professional job available to Johnson after graduation was teaching. She taught school for a number of years but stopped when she married and had children. In 1952, she started teaching again to support her family after her husband became ill.  

How Did She Get to NASA?

When Johnson was 34 years old, she applied for a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. NACA was the name of the government agency that later became NASA. In the early to mid-1950s, NACA was just beginning its work on studying space. The NACA was hiring women—including African Americans—to be “computers.” These female computers calculated the mathematics for the engineers who were working on the space program. The first time Johnson applied, all of the jobs were already filled. She was disappointed, but she didn’t give up. Johnson applied the following year, and that time the agency offered her a job. She took it and worked with a large group of women who were all computers like herself.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

What Did She Do for NASA?

As Johnson worked on math problems with the other female computers, she would ask questions. She didn’t want to just do the work—she wanted to know the “hows” and the “whys,” and then the “why nots.” By asking questions, Johnson began to stand out.

Women were not allowed to attend meetings with the male engineers and scientists. Johnson wanted to go to these meetings to learn more about the projects, so she went. She became known for her training in geometry and began to work with teams made up of men. Eventually, she was recognized as a leader, and the men increasingly relied on her to have the answers they needed.

In 1958, NACA officially became NASA. Shortly thereafter, Johnson became part of the space team. She began calculating the flight path, or trajectory path, for the rocket to put the first American in space in 1961. That American was astronaut Alan Shepard. The engineers knew when and where they wanted Shepard’s space capsule to land, but the tricky part was to calculate when and where the rocket would have to launch. Johnson figured it out! And in February 1962, her calculations helped put the first American into orbit around Earth. His name was John Glenn.

In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy charged the country to send a man to the Moon. The math calculations for sending a man to the Moon were similar to those for putting a man into orbit. But this time, a lot more calculations were involved. This mission would include a crew of three astronauts launching from Earth to the Moon; two astronauts landing on the Moon; and then all three returning successfully back to Earth.

Johnson worked with the NASA team to figure out where and when the rocket needed to be launched to put it on the right path to land on the Moon. Once again, Johnson’s calculations were instrumental in NASA’s success. With the information she provided, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time on July 20, 1969.  They returned safely to Earth on July 24, 1969. All of this happened, in part, because of Johnson and her love of mathematics.

What Did She Do After NASA?

Katherine Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. In 2016, she received honorary doctorates in science from West Virginia University and West Virginia State University.

During her retirement, she enjoyed traveling, playing bridge (a card game), and spending time with her family and friends. She also liked to talk to students about school. She told students to keep studying and to work hard. She encouraged students to learn more about mathematics and science—and to never give up on their dreams.

How Long Did Katherine Johnson Live?

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She died on Feb. 24, 2020. She was 101 years old.

Katherine Johnson

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