African Americans in the Space Program
Katherine Johnson photographed at the Langley Research Center in 1980. Courtesy of NASA.
After graduating summa cum laude with Bachelor of Science degrees in French and Mathematics from West Virginia State College at only eighteen years of age, Katherine Johnson went on to teach elementary and high school. In 1953, she started working at NASA—in facilities that were still segregated—at the Langley Research Center. Employed as a mathematician, Johnson's equations were necessary for working out the trajectory of the first manned flight, undertaken by Alan Shepard in May 1961, and of Apollo 11, the first spaceflight to the moon. In 1962, she the calculated the trajectory of John Glenn's orbit around the Earth electronically, marking the first time a computer was used in such a process. Previously, everything had been done with pencil and paper; Johnson later joked that she was a computer at NASA "when computers wore skirts." Commenting on the complex calculations necessary for Shepard's flight, Johnson called them "easy," saying, "It was just a matter of shooting him up and having him come back down." Her indispensable work continued through the 1980s.