NASA Pioneer Katherine Johnson Turns 96

Megan Ray  |  August 28, 2014

This year, Aug. 26 will mark the 96th birthday of Katherine Johnson. It's a name that not many people know, but without her work, the world would be a very different place. Johnson's work for NASA would help make Alan Shepard the first American to visit space and inspire countless people to follow their passions, despite the obstacles in their way.

Early aptitude
From the beginning of her life, Johnson had a love of learning, especially mathematics. She grew up with a habit of counting everything she could, performing mental calculations all day, according to a NASA profile. Johnson's early intelligence and curiosity fortunately didn't escape the notice of her father.

When Johnson was growing up, in the 1920s and '30s, education was only available for African-Americans at her local school until the eighth grade, the Langley Research Center stated. As Johnson told the space agency, her father taught her that she should never view herself as lesser despite society's prejudices. Johnson's father took the family to Institute, West Virginia, 120 miles from their home, where his daughters could continue their education through college. It must have been a difficult decision, as he had to return to White Sulfur Springs to work, but the tough choice would eventually benefit the world.

Johnson's intelligence and dedication set her apart from a young age. Langley reported that she entered high school at age 10, graduated by 14 and received her college degree at 18. After graduating, Johnson worked for a time as a teacher, later leaving the job to marry before teaching yet again when her husband became too sick to work. However, Johnson said that she always had the idea to become a research mathematician, a passion that was supported by her professors in college, according to the National Visionary Leadership Project.

A shot at her dream
In 1953, she got her chance to enter a more strenuous mathematical field when she got a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, according to The History Makers. Johnson performed calculations that were needed by the organization's engineers to develop and test aircraft. She and the others working this job were known as computers. NACA hired women to perform these tasks, but according to the source, Johnson was the only woman on her particular flight team. Computers were generally not closely integrated into the work of NACA - most never even knew what their calculations were used for, Johnson told NASA. She was different. Johnson wanted to know more about the process, and that tendency helped her catch the attention of the organization's higher-ups.

Her place in history 
When NACA changed its mission in 1958, becoming the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Johnson was one of the founders of the team that worked to send humans to space, according to the organization. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted, and Johnson's team had to rework the concepts that they had used at NACA to operate in space. Her work paid off - in 1961, she helped send Alan Shepard into space and brought him home safely.

Soon after, NASA switched to using mechanical computers - the kind used today - to calculate flight trajectories, due to the growing complexity of the task. Johnson, however, was not forgotten. After running calculations on a computer, the flight team often asked Johnson to double-check the numbers, since they trusted her even more than their machines.

Inspiring the future 
In 1986, at age 68, Johnson retired from NASA. She continues to hold a place of importance in the scientific community, giving lectures and speaking on panels. Johnson's work after NASA has led her to speak to students at graduation ceremonies and other events, stressing the importance of scientific literacy.