Katharine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations and analysis helped send the first Americans to space in 1961.
She was born in White Sulphur Springs, in West Virginia USA in August 26th 1918 and died on February 24th 2020 aged 101.
Her intelligence and skill with numbers became known when she was young. She was a high school freshman by the age of 10, and by 18 she had graduated from West Virginia State College with highest honours.
At West Virginia State College, she earned a degree in mathematics and French. In 1953 she began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)’s West Computing Unit, a group of African American women who manually performed complex mathematical calculations for the space program.
She was working as a teacher before NASA hired her to join the West Computing Unit.
In 1960 she coauthored a paper with one of the group’s engineers about calculations for placing a spacecraft into orbit.
It was the first time a woman in her division received credit as an author of a research report. Katharine authored or coauthored 26 research reports during her career.
She also played an important role in NASA’s Mercury program (1961–63) of manned spaceflights.
She received numerous awards and honours for her work including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
In 2016 NASA named a building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, after her.