Hidden Figures: Katherine Johnson

“I counted everything. I counted steps on the road to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed. Anything which could be counted I did." - Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was an African-American physicist, mathematician and a rocket scientist. She was born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, USA  in 1918.

Katherine was a brilliant student, who loved Maths and counted everything. Katherine’s thirst for knowledge allowed her to skip two grades to graduate from high school at age 14, and graduate from university at age 18 in 1953.

From 1953 to 1958, Kathrine worked in a segregated pool of mathematicians referred to as ‘computers with skirts’. However, because of her knowledge of analytical geometry, she was invited to participate in the previously all male editorial board her contributions. They were so important that, as she later said, they forgot to put her back in the pool. 

In 1958, Katherine’s office became desegregated, but a glass ceiling remained. In the early days of NASA, women were not allowed to put their names on reports. As a result of her assertiveness, perseverance and the quality of her work, Katharine Johnson became the first woman in her division ever to have her name on a report. Not the first black woman.

During her time at NASA, Katherine was responsible for calculating the trajectory for the May 5th, 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 navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures when NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around the Earth; Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Katherine verified the calculations! 

Along with these achievements Katherine co-authored 26 scientific papers. And on May 5th, 2016, a new 40000 square foot building was named and dedicated to Katherine Johnson computational research facility at NASA's Langley Research Centre in Virginia,  USA 

Source: PBS LearningMedia

Katherine Johnson features in Petit Pli's second comic, Mission 2: Earth’s Hidden Figures for LittleHumans, which highlights the importance and significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

We hope our comic helps to nurture LittleHumans' innate curiosity and inspires them to never stop asking about Earth's hidden figures.