Long before today’s technology was invented, Katherine Johnson was known as a computer. She calculated flight trajectories, by hand, for the United States space program.
Without the brilliance of a mind like Johnson’s, it’s uncertain whether John Glenn would have pioneered space missions and doubtful Neil Armstrong would have been the first human to step onto the surface of the moon.
Her precise calculations ensured the astronauts made it to space safely and back.
For her contributions to space exploration, Katherine Johnson, who died in February 2020 at the age of 101, was selected as the 2020 recipient of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal, awarded for achievement in research, discovery, and exploration. Though she herself wasn’t physically exploring space, without her there might not have been any exploration at all.
In 1969, the Apollo astronauts were awarded the same prize. Now, the excellent work that made the mission possible is being celebrated.
"We are honored to present Katherine Johnson the Hubbard Medal, the National Geographic Society's highest recognition, for her extraordinary contributions in the fields of science and exploration,” National Geographic Society CEO Jill Tiefenthaler said this week. “Fifty years ago, the Apollo 11 astronauts were awarded with the medal, and we’re honored to recognize the mathematician whose precise calculations made those flights possible. Katherine's legacy of exploration, innovation and inspiration lives on, and we are in awe of her remarkable achievements."
That legacy of inspiration lives on in Kavita Gupta, a chemistry teacher at Monta Vista High School, in Cupertino, California. Gupta says Johnson is her hero. “Katherine Johnson, the human computer, the third African-American woman to get a Ph.D., who helped NASA put an astronaut into orbit and then help put a man on the moon, inspires me with her pioneering legacy to break barriers and to challenge norms as a teacher and as a woman of color,” Gupta says.
As seen in the 2016 Academy Award-nominated film Hidden Figures, Johnson was among a group of Black women described as “human computers” who worked at NASA, then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, calculating space flight trajectories by hand. (Historic pictures show the hidden women of the space race.)
Her exceptional work as a mathematician guided the 1961 mission on which Alan B. Shepherd became the first American in space. A year later, her calculating skills helped John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Most notably, in 1969 she calculated trajectories that led the Apollo 11 to the moon, one of America’s greatest scientific feats.
Johnson has been called a math genius. She entered high school when she was 10 and graduated four years later. She then entered West Virginia State College, a historically Black College and University, and finished her undergraduate degree by the age of 18.
Johnson was fortunate to have had access to schools and education beyond the reach of most African Americans at the time. In her hometown of White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, Black students in the segregated education system could go no further than sixth grade. Because of this, Johnson’s father, Joshua Coleman, moved the family 125 miles to the town of Institute, also in West Virginia, where she and her siblings could receive a full education.
In 1939, Johnson was selected to become the first Black woman to integrate West Virginia University’s graduate school, where she pursued a master’s degree in mathematics.
In 1952 Johnson joined NASA and its cohort of Black women mathematicians.
It wasn’t Johnson’s intention to break down barriers, says Kathy Moore, the youngest of her three daughters.
“She was a mathematician bar none, but she didn't wear it,” Moore says. “You know, she just did it.”
Both Johnson’s living daughters followed in their mother’s footsteps to became mathematicians. Joylette Hylick began working for NASA after she graduated from Hampton University in 1962. Moore had a 33-year career as math teacher and counselor. Both are now retired. A third daughter, Constance Goble Garcia, died in 2010.
‘She was fearless’
Moore says her mother was a model of fearlessness when she and her sisters were growing up.
“You can just imagine in the 30s, 40s, and 50s,” Moore says. “It was kind of hard for females to be in the workforce number one, and then to be in a field like research, and mathematics, she sort of had to feel her way. What she had that I think got her through was, she was fearless.”
Hylick remembers her mother telling her and her sisters to do what you have to do to get the job done. “My mom said, be assertive, not aggressive. You know, you don't have to make too much noise, just do what you have to do.”
“People ask if John Glenn, or the astronauts, knew mom,” Hylick says. “I think they knew of her. They knew her reputation, but there probably was no more respect than that because when the day was over, they went into their white world. We went into our world,” she says, adding, “we had everything we needed except money and opportunity.”
Johnson’s efforts opened doors for others, and she laid the groundwork for women astronauts such as Christina Koch, who held the record for the longest single space flight by a woman after completing her first mission on board the International Space Station in March 2019. On the following mission, in October, Koch and crewmate Jessica Meir made the first all-female space walk.
“When I think about my experiences and those of Katherine Johnson, I am completely in awe,” Koch says. “She overcame so much more overt prejudice, so many more challenges than I was ever faced with. But what I see as similarities is that we were both motivated by a true love for what we saw as our calling.” (Remembering Katherine Johnson for her love of numbers.)
In 2016, NASA named a $30 million, 40,000-square-foot Computational Research Facility in her honor.
Former NASA administrator and astronaut Charlie F. Bolden says he hadn’t heard about Katherine Johnson while he was growing up or even later during his career.
“When president Obama decided to give her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I said, I have to be there.’ I was literally in tears throughout the entire ceremony, because this was an iconic figure that I was finally having an opportunity to meet.”
Influencing Black students today
Johnson’s work and legacy influences Black children aspiring to be scientists or to enter the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, known as STEM. (Meet history's most brilliant female coders.)
Morgan Wellons, 12, from Atlanta, Georgia, sees Johnson as inspirational. She and sisters Madison, 10, and Monroe, 7, dressed up as the women featured in the Hidden Figures movie. “What made her so special was how she did all of those things with people around her doubting what she said and did,” Wellon says. “Katherine Johnson has taught me to believe in myself and not look for approval from other people, especially men.”
Madison Wellons says Johnson gives her the confidence that she too can achieve anything. “Katherine Johnson was special because she was the most brilliant and smartest person in the room, and she knew it, but she was also humble about it,” Madison says. “Katherine Johnson taught me not to let anyone bring me down and that women are capable of doing anything they want to do.”
When asked about what the Hubbard Medal means to the Johnson family, daughters Moore and Hylick say their mother would have been gratified to be recognized with such a prestigious award.
“I just think that award, you know, it's gone to the astronauts, it's gone to deGrasse Tyson, it's gone to people that have been recognized as innovators,” Moore says. “She was an exciting, quiet thunder who managed to open up the world of space, but I think in terms of the medal, she would say, ‘I can't believe it.’ I think she would be quite honored to be in the presence of, or on the list with, those people.”