How NASA’s Katherine Johnson Had the Right Stuff to Win the Space Race

Hidden History: Her extraordinary math skills made Katherine Johnson an invaluable part of the team that sent American astronauts into space and ultimately to the moon.

Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson NASA

“Get the girl to check the numbers.” These words came from astronaut John Glenn in February 1962 as he prepared to become the first American to orbit the Earth. The trajectory of his orbit had been calculated by NASA’s new state-of-the-art computers, but Glenn did not trust the machines.

Mercury 7 astronauts had always relied on “computers in skirts,” women who were mathematicians at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., for such flight data. So before he made his historic voyage into space, Glenn called on Katherine Johnson to recheck the computer’s analysis, knowing that she had provided similar calculations for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Johnson, one of the few African-American women then working for NASA, calculated and confirmed the data for Glenn’s orbit. The launch went ahead and Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, 10 months after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to make that journey.  

Johnson’s role was little recognized at the time, but she would go on to play a significant—though, again, largely hidden—role in the first moon landing and in U.S. space exploration in the 1970s and 1980s. She did so by doing what she had always loved: math.   

From as early as she could remember, Katherine Johnson loved to count. Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., in 1918, she counted the number of steps from her house to church and counted dishes as she washed them. She loved that with math “you’re either right or wrong.” Her mother, Joylette, was a teacher, but she credits her father, Joshua, a farmer and janitor, for her skill with numbers.

Joshua Coleman had left school in the sixth grade, but just by looking at a tree he could calculate how many boards could be gotten from it. He could figure out math problems that stumped Katherine’s teachers at the local school for blacks, which went up only to the eighth grade. Ambitious for his daughter, Joshua Coleman remained in White Sulphur Springs during the school year while Joylette, Katherine and her three older siblings lived 125 miles away near Institute, home to a high school connected to the HBCU now known as West Virginia State University.

Ten years old when she entered the best high school for African Americans in the state, Katherine was inspired by her principal, who encouraged her interest in math and astronomy. After high school she won a full scholarship to West Virginia State College, graduating at age 18 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French in 1937. Although one of her  professors, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, one of the first blacks to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, had piqued her interest in mathematical research, job opportunities in that field would have been virtually nonexistent for an African-American woman at that time.

With no interest in nursing, she chose the only other route available for black women with degrees in science in the 1930s: teaching. She taught in both West Virginia and Virginia, experiencing in the latter state a harsher version of Jim Crow than she had grown up with. She also married James Francis Goble, raised three children with him and nursed him through a prolonged illness until his death in 1956. In 1959 she married a Korean War veteran, Lt. Col. James A. Johnson.   

By then Katherine Johnson had been working for NASA at Langley for six years. She began there in 1953 with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as part of its pool of female “computers”—akin to a secretarial pool—who performed the mathematical calculations once performed by aeronautic engineers. Women had been, in Johnson’s memorable phrase, “computers with skirts” since 1935. During World War II, NACA also began hiring African-American women with degrees in math and science as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring within the U.S. defense industry and established a precedent for future civil rights laws.

Johnson became the first woman and first person of color in the Space Task Force to perform mathematical calculations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when it replaced NACA in 1958. Johnson impressed her new colleagues with her knowledge of analytical geometry and got them to see her as an equal by standing her ground when it mattered, notably by insisting that she attend higher-level meetings and briefings because, as she pointed out, there was no law to prevent it.