This culture landmark provides a general overview of Katherine Johnson, an acclaimed mathematician and former NASA "human computer" who died in February 2020.

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Katherine Johnson

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (born August 26, 1918) was an African-American physicist and mathematician who made contributions to the United States' aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, she conducted technical work at NASA that spanned decades. During this time, she calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program. Her calculations were critical to the success of these missions. Johnson also performed calculations for the plans for a mission to Mars.


Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), physicist and mathematician.
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US flag

The Apollo 11 lunar landing mission crew, pictured from left to right, Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. Image from

1938 de-segregation

White supremacists protesting against the 1938 desegregation rule. Image from


National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Image from

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman, in 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children. Johnson showed a talent for math from an early age. She graduated from high school at 14 and entered West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), a historically black college. As a student, Johnson took every math course offered by the college.

Multiple professors took Katherine under their wings, including chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who had mentored the girl throughout high school, and W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in math. Claytor added new math courses just for Katherine. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937, with degrees in Mathematics and French, at age 18. She took on a teaching job at a black public school in Virginia.

Katherine Johnson
was the first African-American woman
to attend graduate school at
West Virginia University.

In 1939, after marrying her first husband, James Goble, Johnson left her teaching job and enrolled in a graduate math program, but quit after one year, having become pregnant and choosing to focus on her family. At the time of her entry, she was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Through WVSC's president, she became one of three African-American students, and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school after the United States Supreme Court had ruled in 1938 that states that provided public higher education to white students also had to provide it to black students.

Johnson decided on a career as a research mathematician, although this was a difficult field for African Americans and women to enter. The first jobs she found were in teaching. It was not until 1952, at a family gathering, that a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians (the NACA was superseded by the NASA in 1958). At the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, based in Hampton, Virginia near Langley Field, NACA hired African-American mathematicians as well as whites for their Guidance and Navigation Department. Johnson was offered a job in 1953. She accepted and became part of the early NASA team.

NACA hired not only white mathematicians but also African-Americans to operate their Guidance and Navigation Department. However, they worked in different rooms.


West Virginia State University

West Virginia State University.
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Angie King Turner

Angie King Turner (1905-2004), mathematician at West Virginia State College.
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William Claytor

William Schieffelin Claytor (1908-1967), third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.
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From 1953 through 1958, Johnson worked as a ‘computer’, analyzing topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. Originally assigned to the West Area Computers section supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, Johnson was reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley's Flight Research Division. It was staffed by white male engineers. In keeping with state racial segregation laws, and federal workplace segregation introduced under President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, Johnson and the other African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers. Their office was labeled as ‘Colored Computers’.

"I didn't feel the segregation at NACA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, (...) I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."
Katherine Johnson talks about segragation at NACA during an interview.

NACA disbanded the colored computing pool in 1958 when it was superseded by NASA, which adopted digital computers, and the installation was desegregated.

From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Trajectory for space flight of Alan Shepard. Image from

Katherine Johnson's trajectory of Shepard's flight


Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard in the Freedom 7 capsule before launch.
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1. Where did she study?

2. What subjects did she study at university?

3. Write the names of at least two mathematicians who influenced her career.

4. Where did she start her professional career? Doing what?

5. Write the names of at least three missions she worked on.

6. Was NACA segregated?

7. Did she feel segregation at work?

She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer's numbers: Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations.

"So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success."
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Katherine Johnson's trajectory of Shepard's flight

John Glenn, the first American to orbit around the earth. Image from

8. What were the "colored rooms"?

9. Was NASA segregated?

10. Why did John Glenn request her intervention for his mission?

11. How did she help bring back Apollo 13?

12. What was her relationship with computers?

13. What is the only project she was not able to see?

14. How many scientific articles did she publish?

15. How has her life become better known in recent years?

Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. In 1961, Johnson's work helped to ensure that Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 Mercury capsule would be quickly found after landing, using the accurate trajectory that had been established.

Johnson also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. In 1970, she worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew's return to Earth, creating a one-star observation system that would allow astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. Later in her career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers. Her social influence as a pioneer in space science and computing is demonstrated by the honors she has received and her status as a role model for a life in science. Since 1979 (before she retired from NASA), Johnson has been listed among African Americans in science and technology. In 2015, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2016, she was included in the list of ‘BBC 100 Women’, BBC's list of 100 influential women worldwide.


BBC's 100 influential women

BBC's list of 100 influential women worldwide.

Johnson has also been portrayed in the media. In a 2016 episode of the NBC series Timeless, titled ‘Space Race’, the mathematician is portrayed by Nadine Ellis. The highly-acclaimed December 2016 film Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows Johnson and other female African-American mathematicians (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) who worked at NASA. Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson in the film.

Katherine Johnson Medal

2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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1. West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University).
2. Mathematics and French.
3. Angie Turner and William Claytor.
4. At a black public school in Virginia. Teaching.
5. Freedom 7, Apollo 11, Apollo 13, Space Shuttle, among others
6. Yes
7. She said at an interview that she did not.

8. African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms separate from whites.
9. No.
10. Glenn trusted Johnson's calculations more than he trusted computers.
11. Her backup procedures and charts helped set a safe return path, creating an observation system to determine spaceship location.

12. She helped to establish confidence in the new technology.
13. A mission to Mars.
14. Twenty-six.
15. She was portrayed in an episode of the series Timeless, and in the film Hidden Figures


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