Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. Her father was a farmer and handyman, her mother a teacher. From an early age Katherine showed an aptitude for mathematics and graduated college at the age of 18 with degrees in Math and French. A couple of years later she obtained a Master’s degree in Mathematics and in 1953 began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She worked in a pool with other women mathematicians and their job was to do technical calculations. They were called “computers” and since her pool was made up of non-white women they were known as “colored computers”. Those were the days of racial segregation and gender barriers, and also the days before computers were used at NACA. Katherine’s expertise in analytic geometry marked her for advancement.

In 1961 when the first American, Alan Shepard, was launched into space, the flight trajectory of his Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft was calculated by Katherine Johnson. In 1962 when NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, John Glenn refused to fly unless the computer’s calculations were verified by Katherine’s calculations. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 history-making flight to the Moon. In 1970 when Apollo 13’s mission to the Moon was aborted, Katherine Johnson worked on the calculations and charts which helped to bring back the astronauts safely to Earth four days later. Later in her career, she worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

On November 24, 2015, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama at the White House.

Rishi Singh