Katherine Johnson is an African-American mathematician who worked for NASA and her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights. She spent 35 years at NASA, where she helped the space agency pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She was also portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures” by Taraji P. Henson, which depicts the roles of African-American women at NASA during the Space Race.
Johnson decided to be a research mathematician, although the first jobs she found were in teaching. When she found out that NACA, the predecessor of NASA, was hiring mathematicians, she applied and was hired as a “computer” in the West Area Computers section before being moved to the Guidance and Navigation Department. Through her career with NASA, Johnson worked directly with digital computers, and helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. She also worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission and helped create a one-star observation system that allowed astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. Johnson also worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on a plan for a mission to Mars. Image: NASA/Sean Smith [Public Domain]