Katherine Johnson: NASA’s Human Computer


The African–American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in a small town in West Virginia, USA. Just like all African–American girls at that time, Katherine had few opportunities to continue her education; that is why her family had to move to another city so that she could join high school. She graduated high school at the age of fourteen, and college at the age of eighteen. Following graduation, she chose mathematics as her career, as she was fascinated with numbers since she was ten.

In 1953, Johnson joined a group of women working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), known later as NASA. They were mainly responsible for reading the data from the black boxes of airplanes, in addition to performing all the mathematical calculations for technological developments. They were performing the computers’ work before NASA adopted electronic computers; that is why this group was known as “human computers”.

Thanks to her excellence in geometry, and her accuracy in mathematical calculations, Katherine Johnson was nominated to join the team determining how to send a human into space and back. In 1961, she was in-charge to calculate the trajectory for Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space; one year later, Johnson was involved in another challenge: John Glenn’s trip around the Earth. Even though NASA started using electronic computers to perform calculations to account for the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies, Glenn asked Johnson to double check the computers’ calculations to check their accuracy.

By time, NASA depended more on electronic computers; yet, Johnson performed the accurate calculations for the historic trip to the Moon, Apollo 11, in 1969. Moreover, her contributions helped ensure the safe return of Apollo 13 after experiencing a malfunction in space. Until her retirement in 1986, Johnson continued working for NASA, helping develop its Space Shuttle Program and Earth Resources Satellite.

Johnson has been honored with a number of awards for her outstanding contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs. The last was in 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her 3-decade work in NASA. The little-known story of Johnson and her fellow “human computers” turned into a feature film entitled Hidden Figures, which will be released in 2017.

Check the official movie trailer:




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