Who Was Katherine Johnson?

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Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician who played a crucial role in the early days of NASA’s space program. She was known for her exceptional mathematical skills and calculations that helped launch astronauts into space. Johnson’s calculations were used to verify the trajectory for the first American crewed spaceflight and the Apollo moon missions. Despite facing racial and gender discrimination, she broke barriers as an African American woman in a male-dominated field. Johnson’s contributions to space exploration paved the way for future generations of women and minorities in STEM fields. Her story was popularized in the movie “Hidden Figures.”


Katherine Johnson, a Black woman working in the field of mathematics in the mid-1900s, played a crucial role in making the Moon landing possible.

Born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia, Johnson developed a deep love for math at a young age. She excelled in school, starting high school at 10 years old and completing every math class her college offered. She graduated from West Virginia University at the age of 18 with degrees in mathematics and French.

After college, Johnson became a teacher and later became one of the first three Black students to enter graduate school at West Virginia University. However, she left school when she learned she was going to have a child and moved to Marion, Virginia.

For the next decade, Johnson focused on her family and worked as a teacher. In 1952, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later called NASA) as a computer, solving math problems that contributed to sending people into space.

Despite facing segregation and discrimination, Johnson became a key member of NASA’s Flight Research Division. She broke barriers by using formerly white-only restrooms and challenging gender segregation in the workplace.

Johnson’s calculations played a vital role in America’s first human spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962. She was also part of the team that determined the trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission, which landed humans on the Moon in 1969.

Although her work remained largely unknown to the public for many years, the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” brought attention to Johnson’s contributions and those of her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

In 2015, President Barack Obama presented Katherine Johnson with the Medal of Freedom. The following year, NASA named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor. Johnson passed away at the age of 101 in 2020.

Today, people all over the world commemorate Katherine Johnson’s achievements. Her work made significant advancements in humanity’s understanding of space.

Give It a Try

Are you interested in learning more? Enlist the help of a friend or family member for the following activities.

  • Getting to the Moon was an enormous undertaking, and women played a vital role in that mission and all aspects of NASA throughout its history. Take a look at this presentation about the Women of NASA from womenshistory.org. Did anything surprise you in this presentation? What is the most fascinating thing you discovered? Share your newfound knowledge with a friend or family member.
  • Do you dream of becoming an astronaut someday? Perhaps you aspire to be a scientist and contribute to curing diseases. In the past, certain professions were inaccessible to specific individuals due to their race or gender. However, someone like Katherine Johnson at NASA emerged and changed the rules for everyone. These trailblazers opened up new opportunities for people to pursue their dreams. Is there a trailblazer or hero who is significant to you or has shown you that you can be anything you want to be? It could be a scientist, an athlete, an artist, anyone who inspires you to pursue your dreams. Write a description of this person, what they do, and how they inspire you. Explain how they broke through barriers like Katherine Johnson and helped you believe in what you can achieve someday. Share your writing with a friend or family member.
  • To celebrate the life and accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, choose one of these NASA Space Crafts Activities. Make sure to ask a family member for assistance.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-katherine-johnson-k4 (accessed 24 Nov. 2021)
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Katherine-Johnson-mathematician (accessed 24 Nov. 2021)
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/science/katherine-johnson-dead.html (accessed 24 Nov. 2021)
  • https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/katherine-johnson (accessed 24 Nov. 2021)
  • https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed 24 Nov. 2021)

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