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Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures

Many people would consider being selected among the African American students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate school to be their most significant life achievement. However, the event was among the many accomplishments that marked the exceptional and long life of Katherine Johnson (Jones 64). Katherine and other women worked hard for decades to ensure a successful space race in the United States.

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Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia, and her brilliance and curiosity about numbers made her vault some grades in school. For example, Katherine Johnson attended high school at thirteen and joined the college at eighteen (Shetterly par. 4). In college, Katherine Johnson met professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, who became her math mentor. In 1937, Johnson graduated with the highest honors and acquired a teaching job in Virginia’s black public school (Shetterly par. 5). In 1939, Johnson and two other men were selected by Dr. John W. Davis, the state President of Virginia, to be the first black students to integrate West Virginia schools.

Johnson was informed about a vacancy job position at all-blacks National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA’s) laboratory by a family member. As a result, Johnson and her family relocated to acquire the job opportunity (Shetterly par. 5). Katherine began working in Langley in 1953 and was given a project in the Division of Flight Research. Johnson analyzed flight tests data and investigated a plane crash over the next four years. Walker (103) explains that the Soviet satellite Sputnik’s launch in 1957 significantly impacted Katherine’s life and changed history. Johnson provided the math for the Space Technology Notes in 1957, a compendium of engineers’ lectures in the Division of Pilotless Aircraft Research (PARD) (Walker 104). Johnson, who developed the program, had previously worked with the engineers in Langley and NACA, which became NASA later in 1957. Katherine conducted a trajectory analysis for the first human spaceflight in America known as Alan Shepards in 1961.

Katherine and Ted Skopinski co-authored a report about orbital spaceflight with spacecraft’s landing position’s specifications. Walker (106) explains that Johnson was the first female to be credited as a report author in Flight Research Division. NASA prepared John Glenn’s orbital mission, and Johnson played a significant role, which increased her popularity. The orbital flight was complicated and required strong communication networks. The engineers feared risking their lives with the electrical calculating machines because of hiccups and blackouts (Walker 108). As a result, Glen asked them to get Johnson to use her hand and run the same numbers through similar equations. Glen’s flight was successful and enhanced the space competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Johnson talked about her most significant contribution to space exploration as the math that helped Apollo’s Lunar Module project with the moon-orbiting Service Module and Command (Jones 65). Additionally, Johnson worked on the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, which was named Landsat later) and on the space shuttle. Johnson also was an author and co-author of twenty-six research reports (Jones 66). Katherine retired in 1986 after working in Langley for thirty-three years. Johnson achieved another success in 2015 when she was 97 after being awarded the Freedom Medal, the United States’ highest honor given to President Barack Obama’s civilians. Johnson died who many referred to as a hero, in February 2020 and left a legacy as a Mathematician in NASA.


Jones, Shelly M. Women Who Count: Honoring African American Women Mathematicians. American Mathematical Society, 2019.

Shetterly, Margot Lee. “Katherine Johnson (1918–2020).” Nature News, 2020. Web.

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Walker, Erica N. “Excellence and Devotion: Black Women in Mathematics in the United States.” Women in Mathematics, edited by Janet L. Beery et al., Springer, 2017, pp. 103−120.

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