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STEM Celebrity Spotlight: Katherine Johnson

By Joslyn Stamp

Born in 1918, future NASA research mathematician Kathrine Johnson loved counting: “I counted everything. 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.” As numbers fascinated her, Kathrine Johnson excelled in the STEM field being levels ahead of her classmates. By 13, Kathrine was already in high school and at 18 Kathrine Johnson attended West Virginia State College. In 1938, Dr. John W. Davis selected Kathrine and two other Black students to be offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. She left her twitching job at a public school to attend the math program. However, at the start of the second semester she left college to start a family and return to teaching with her husband James Goble.

In 1952, Kathrine's relative told her that NASA was hiring for the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Kathrine and her family decided to move to Newport News, Virginia to work at Langley in summer of 1953. Supervisor Dorothuy Vaugnh, assigned her to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. Kathrine would analyze data from tests and work on wake turbulence in plane crashes. When wrapping up her research her husband, James Goble died of cancer.

In 1957, Kathrine Johnson provided math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a series of lectures given by flight researchers. She also did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s mission Freedom 7. Freedom 7 was America’s first ever human space flight executed by astronaut John Glen. In February 1962, Kathrine famously checked the math for his spaceflight. In 1969, she also checked the calculations for the moon landing.

After co-authoring 26 scientific papers, Kathrine Johson was awarded the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. American President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2015. President Obama said at the time, "Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society's expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity's reach.”.

On February 24, 2020, Katherine Johnson passed away in Newport News, VA. Her legacy lives on inspiring all students in STEM and space careers.

Works Cited

A&E Networks Television. (n.d.).


Gillard, Eric. “Katherine Johnson's Stem Contributions Marked on Her 103rd Birthday.”

NASA, NASA, 25 Aug. 2021,


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