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Who Was Katherine Johnson? (Grades K-4)

This article is for students grades K-4.

Katherine Johnson loved math. Early in her career, she was called a “computer.” She helped NASA put an astronaut into orbit around Earth. And then she helped put a man on the Moon.

Katherine Johnson

What Was Katherine Johnson’s Early Life Like?

As a young girl, Katherine loved to count. She counted everything. She would count the number of steps she took to the road. She counted the steps into church. She even counted the forks and plates when she washed the dishes.

Katherine loved to learn. She loved learning math the most. Katherine went through school quickly. She started high school when she was just 10 years old!

When she was 15, Katherine began college. She took classes to become a mathematician. That is someone who is an expert in math. She learned how to solve big problems by using math, especially geometry. Geometry is a kind of math that uses lines, shapes and angles. Katherine studied hard. She graduated from college when she was 18.

What Did She Do After College?

After college, Katherine became a teacher. She taught school until she got married and had children. When her husband became very sick, she started teaching again to support her family.

When Katherine was 34, she heard that NACA (later called NASA) was hiring African American women to solve math problems. These workers were called “computers.” Katherine applied for one of the jobs, but the jobs were already taken. Still, she did not give up. She applied again the next year, and this time NACA hired her. She worked with a large group of women who were all computers like she was. 

But Katherine was different from the other human computers. She asked a lot of questions. She wanted to learn more about her work and about NASA. So she started going to meetings. Before Katherine, only men attended these meetings. She changed that! She learned so much that she left her job as a computer. She became a team member who worked on different space projects for NASA.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson

What Did She Do for NASA?

In 1962, the United States decided to send people to the Moon. That was big news. Getting to and from the Moon would take a lot of work. As the U.S. space agency, NASA would have to solve many, many problems. So NASA created large teams to solve them.

Katherine studied how to use geometry for space travel. She figured out the paths for the spacecraft to orbit (go around) Earth and to land on the Moon. NASA used Katherine’s math, and it worked! NASA sent astronauts into orbit around Earth. Later, her math helped send astronauts to the Moon and back. NASA could not have done these things without Katherine Johnson and her love for math!

What Did She Do After NASA?

Katherine Johnson worked for NASA for more than 30 years. She retired in 1986. During retirement, she enjoyed traveling, playing card games, and spending time with her family and friends. She also liked to talk to students about school. She encouraged students to keep studying and to work hard. She told them to learn more about math and science. And she said to never give up on their dreams!

Katherine Johnson

How Long Did Katherine Johnson Live?

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

Things to Know!

  1. In the 1950s, there were no computers like we have today. People had to solve hard math problems by themselves. They often used adding machines and rulers. These people were called “computers.” The NACA (NASA) hired women to work as computers.
  2. Getting to the Moon is not easy. Rockets and spacecraft cannot fly in a straight line to get there, even though it seems like they could.
  3. Astronaut John Glenn went in orbit in 1962. He was the first American to orbit our planet. Then, NASA’s Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the Moon. He and his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, returned to Earth four days later.

More About Katherine Johnson

Make a Katherine Johnson Paper Doll
Video: The Katherine Johnson Legacy
Video: Space Station Birthday Greetings to Katherine Johnson
Video: Taraji P. Henson Salutes Katherine Johnson 

Read Who Was Katherine Johnson? (Grades 5-8)