Before she helped send the first astronauts to the moon, won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and became the subject of an award-winning film, Katherine Johnson—who passed away on February 24, 2020 at the age of 101—was an anonymous “female computer” doing thankless but vital work at NASA. Her accomplishments have since been recognized, leading her to be regarded as one of the pioneers of the space age.
1. Katherine Johnson graduated from college at age 18.
Johnson’s gift for numbers allowed her to accelerate through her education. Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, she enrolled directly into the second grade when she reached school age, and by age 10 she was ready for high school.
As an undergrad at West Virginia State College, she took every math class that was available to her. One of her mentors, famed black mathematician Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, even designed a course on the geometry of space especially for her. At the age of 18, Johnson graduated summa cum laude with degrees in both mathematics and French.
2. Katherine Johnson was one of the first black students integrated into West Virginia's graduate schools.
Johnson had plans to continue her education even further. In 1939, the newly-married Johnson—then known as Katherine Goble—enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University after being selected as one of the first three black students—and the first black woman—to attend the state’s newly-integrated graduate school program. After completing her first session, she discovered that she was pregnant and opted to withdraw from school in order to raise a family with her husband, James Goble. (They eventually had three daughters.)
3. Katherine Johnson was rejected by NASA the first time she applied.
In the mid-1950s, NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA) was looking into sending people to space for the first time—a task that required crunching a lot of numbers. Without the high-powered computers we have at our disposal today, the agency hired a team of women “computers” to do the complex math for low wages. Johnson was interested, but the first time she applied for the job there were no positions left for her. She applied a second time the following year and made it in.
4. Katherine Johnson helped send John Glenn into orbit.
Astronaut John Glenn’s three orbits around Earth in 1962 marked a pivotal moment in the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia. His may be the face most people remember, but behind the scenes, Johnson played an important part in getting him off the ground. The orbital equations used to choreograph his mission had been uploaded to a computer, but this being the early 1960s, electronic calculators still weren’t a totally reliable method for handling sophisticated equations. Before climbing into the cockpit, Glenn requested that Johnson check the computer’s work by redoing all the math by hand, saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” The flight went off without a hitch.
5. Katherine Johnson helped send the first men to the Moon.
The same year John Glenn made his historic journey, NASA received orders from President John F. Kennedy to get to work on a more ambitious mission: sending a manned shuttle to the moon. This trip would require even more calculations, and Johnson once again played a significant role. She worked with NASA’s team of engineers to pinpoint the time and location of departure that would put astronauts on track for the moon. The Apollo moon landing program was a success, and arguably one of the most famous events in the history of space travel.
6. Katherine Johnson wrote the book on space travel (literally).
NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman wasn’t exaggerating when she said that Johnson “literally wrote the textbook on rocket science” in a statement from NASA. She co-authored one of the first textbooks on space while while working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at the Langley Research Center.
7. Katherine Johnson contributed to plans for a Mars mission.
Later in her career at NASA, Johnson worked on some of the agency’s early plans for a mission to Mars. She retired in 1986, decades before NASA would release a detailed plan for reaching the red planet to the public.
8. Katherine Johnson was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Few people knew her name when the first astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, but in 2015, Johnson received recognition on a national scale. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The medal is the highest honor a civilian can receive.
9. Katherine Johnson eventually received her doctorate.
More than 75 years after she dropped out of graduate school, Johnson received an honorary doctorate degree from West Virginia University. According to the institution, Johnson earned the honor by “attaining national and international preeminence in the field of astrophysics and providing distinguished leadership and service in her field.”