African-American Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson is a mathematician who calculated orbital mechanics as a NASA employee. The calculations were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights. In her 35 years as NASA employee, she mastered complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks.
According to Wikipedia, Johnson’s work included calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those of astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous paths for the Apollo lunar lander and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Johnson graduated from high school at 14 and entered West Virginia State, where she took every math class they had to offer. Here professors included chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, who had also mentored the girl throughout high school, and W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in math. Katherine graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in mathematics and French, at age 18.
She was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University and became one of three African-American students, and the only female, selected to integrate the graduate school. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians so she applied and was hired. From 1953 to 1958, Johnson analyzed topics such as gust alleviation for aircraft. From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers; Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations.
Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence in the new technology. Later in her career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.