Katherine Johnson Went to College at 15—Then She Calculated the Path to the Moon

Katherine Johnson Went to College at 15—Then She Calculated the Path to the Moon


Oct 18, 2014

When Katherine Johnson started college at age 15, she never dreamed she'd be involved in space. At the time, she remembers that as a woman, "You could be a nurse or a teacher." But numbers had always come naturally to Johnson, and her professors encouraged her to study mathematics. She eventually took every math course in the college catalog, and notable mathematician Dr. William W. Schiffelin Claytor even created a class in analytic geometry of space just for her.

After graduation, Johnson taught high school for seven years before she applied for a job at Langley Research Center, which would become part of NASA. They called the female employees "women computers," and male engineers initially told Johnson that women didn't attend briefings or meetings. "Is there a law against it?" She retorted. They started letting her join, and she became the only woman in the room.

As the space race heated up, Johnson was called on to help calculate a path into space. She eventually figured out the flight path for the first mission into space in 1961. In 1969, her calculation allowed the United States to make it to the moon. Johnson spent 33 years at NASA, and was awarded three NASA Special Achievement Awards for her work.

MAKERS was lucky to hear Katherine Johnson's story in her own words. Get more of it here!

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