Katherine Johnson, Trailblazing NASA Mathematician, Celebrates 100 Trips Around the Sun

Katherine Johnson — a mathematician at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia who helped make human spaceflight possible — celebrated 100 trips around the sun this weekend.

Johnson, one of NASA's "human computers" whose calculations propelled NASA spacecraft to the stars, turned 100 on Aug. 26. Johnson is a retired NASA Langley mathematician who was integral to developing human spaceflight in America. Johnson, who was played by Taraji P. Henson in the feature film "Hidden Figures," began her career at NASA on a team of black women who were also referred to as "human computers." Like the other women in this group, Johnson broke down barriers as an African-American woman, despite anti-black prejudice.

NASA honored Johnson on her birthday and reminded the world of her unparalleled contributions to human spaceflight. A number of women doing incredible work at NASA expressed how Johnson's work inspired them along the way. "She opened the doors for the rest of us," Julie Williams-Byrd, Langley's acting chief technologist, said in a statement at NASA Langley. [The Women Computers of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Slideshow)]

President Barack Obama presents Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her groundbreaking contributions to spaceflight on Nov. 24, 2015. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)


An unstoppable force and a role model to young African-American women, Johnson began her career at NASA's Langley Research Center in 1953 after one of her relatives told her about open positions at an all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' (NACA's) Langley laboratory. The lab was headed by Dorothy Vaughan, who came from West Virginia, just as Johnson did.

Johnson analyzed flight test data and even completed trajectory analysis for Freedom 7, America's first human spaceflight. She co-authored the paper Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, which detailed the equations that describe an orbital spaceflight where the craft's landing position is specified. This was the first time that a woman received author credit for a research report in the Flight Research Division.


In honor of Johnson's 100th birthday, Julie Williams-Byrd, acting chief technologist at NASA's Langley Research Center, expressed her admiration for the legendary mathematician. (Image credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

Johnson's most famous work, spotlighted in "Hidden Figures," was for John Glenn's orbital mission in 1962. The mission required a complicated worldwide communications network. The mission's orbital calculations, which controlled the trajectory of the capsule for the mission, were programmed by a computer, but Glenn asked engineers to "get the girl" — referring to Katherine Johnson — to validate the calculations. She ran the same calculations by hand that the computer had run, and Glenn said, according to Johnson, "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go."

Her legendary career with NASA lasted from 1953 to 1986.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her @chelsea_gohd. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.