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African American Scientists

Katherine Johnson (b.1918)

Katherine Johnson at NASA, in 1966 - Original

Mathematician Katherine Johnson's life is one marked with many breakthroughs and contributions to the United States' success in space flight. Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. She excelled in school and enrolled in college at West Virginia State University, studying math and graduating with honors. Johnson began her teaching career in Virginia in 1937, and in 1939 was chosen as one of 3 black students to be admitted into the newly integrated graduate studies programs at West Virginia State University. She left college to start a family, and returned to the workforce in 1953 when she secured a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Langley, Virginia. In 1960, she became the first woman ni the Flight Research Division of NASA to receive author credit for her contributions to a report "laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified."

Johnson's knowledge of orbital equations would serve her well for her work supporting the historic Friendship 7 mission in which John Glenn made history by becoming the first American to orbit earth. This mission was one of many in her long career working for NASA in moving space exploration forward, which included working on the space shuttle and Apollo lunar lander. She returned In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday in 2018.


Shetterly, Margot Lee. "Katherine Johnson Biography." From Hidden Figures to Modern Figures, edited by Sarah Loff, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 16 Aug. 2018, Accessed 29 Jan. 2019.

Image credit  NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons