MAKERS Profile

Katherine G. Johnson

Mathematician, NASA

In this video

In this MAKERS interview, Katherine G. Johnson talks about her early affinity for mathematics, a college professor who noticed her gift and pushed her to pursue advanced math courses and how she eventually became a NASA mathematician who calculated, among many other computations, the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth; and Apollo 11, the first human mission to the moon.
Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history. A NASA mathematician, Johnson's computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle. She even calculated the flight path for the first American mission space.   Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Johnson was a talented student who entered college at only 15 years old. At West Virginia State University, W.W. Schiefflin Clayor, the third African American to earn a PhD. in mathematics, recognized Johnson's abilities and motivated her to take advanced math. Johnson would go on to earn a graduate degree in mathematics.   In 1953, Johnson was contracted as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. She worked in a pool of women performing math calculations until she was temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team, and wound up staying there. Johnson’s specialty was calculating the trajectories for space shots which determined the timing for launches, including the Mercury mission and Apollo 11, the mission to the moon.  

More From Katherine G.

Math or French
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson was a student in both math and French, but a teacher with a strong opinion pushed her more toward math.

My Mother the Teacher
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson talks about how her mother was a natural-born teacher and how she herself was a natural-born student.

Langley's Black Mathematicians
Katherine Johnson talks about Langley's quota for black female mathematicians and how she waited for a job opening.

Computations to the Moon
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson shares the DIY method she and her team used to help visualize the flight computation to the moon.

John Glenn
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson talks about working with astronaut John Glenn and how he completely trusted the flight computations they made for him.

To the Moon and Back
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson talks about how worried while she was watching the mission to the moon and hoping her computations worked out.

Constellations
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson talks about how the stars and constellations we're familiar with on Earth look much different when you're in orbit.