Meet the black woman who helped put men on the moon

Katherine Johnson

Katherine G. Johnson

Katherine G. Johnson’s love of counting contributed greatly to America’s aeronautics and space programs. Known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, this phenomenal woman, born August 26, 1918, calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

“I counted everything,” said Johnson. “I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

“Growing up in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson counted everything,” said President Barack Obama, presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Johnson on Nov. 24, 2015. “She counted steps. She counted dishes. She counted the distance to the church. By 10 years old, she was in high school. By 18, she had graduated from college with degrees in math and French. As an African-American woman, job options were limited — but she was eventually hired as one of several female mathematicians for the agency that would become NASA.

“Katherine calculated the flight path for America’s first mission in space, and the path that put Neil Armstrong on the moon. She was even asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. So if you think your job is pressure-packed, hers meant that forgetting to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the Solar System. In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars.”

Johnson, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, married James Francis Goble in 1939, and they had three daughters: Constance, Joylette, and Katherine. In 1956, James Goble died of an inoperable brain tumor. In 1959, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. She sang in the choir of Carver Presbyterian Church for fifty years. Johnson and her husband live in Hampton, Virginia.

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said: “Katherine Johnson once remarked that even though she grew up in the height of segregation, she didn’t think much about it because ‘I didn’t have time for that… don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.’

“The truth in fact, is that Katherine is indeed better. She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country, and because of the trail she blazed, young Americans like my granddaughters can pursue their own dreams without a feeling of inferiority.

“Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space; it’s also a big part of the reason that today there is space for women and African-Americans in the leadership of our nation, including the White House. Katherine Johnson is a true American pioneer who helped our space program advance to new heights, while advancing humanity’s march of progress ever forward.”