HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: (L-R) Actor Janelle Monae, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and actors Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer pose backstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 23rd blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Katherine Johnson, the American mathematician whose hand calculations made John Glenn’s 1962 orbit in space possible.

This is her story.

Avid Student

According to NASA.gov, Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. She was an avid student, so much so that she began high school at age 13. She attended high school classes on the campus of West Virginia State College, which is where she enrolled at age 18 to continue her education. There, she met her mentor, a math professor named W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, who became the third Black person to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics.

Beginning Grad School

After graduating in 1937, Johnson went on to take a teaching position in Virginia. In 1939, West Virginia integrated their public schools and Johnson became one of three students to be offered a spot in the graduate program at West Virginia University. After only a short while, Johnson paused her education to raise three daughters with her first husband, James Goble.

Work at NACA

In 1952, the family moved to Newport News, Virginia so that Johnson could take a computing position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley laboratory. In this position, she began by studying flight test data from the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. Four years into working there, her husband sadly passed from cancer in 1956. After this, Johnson began work in space technology around the time that NACA turned into NASA.

Work on John Glenn’s Launch

In 1962, her work would change the world. As John Glenn prepared to launch into orbit, all the computations had been done by IBM computers. However, Glenn specifically asked that Johnson run them all by hand because he had more confidence in her than an IBM computer. The launch’s success marked one of Johnson’s largest and most infamous contributions to space travel and history.


After this major success, Johnson’s computations also contributed to Project Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite along with 26 research reports. She retired in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama. A year later, the movie Hidden Figures came out, starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson. It tells the story of Johnson and the entire team of Black women who made history working with NASA. Johnson passed in February of 2020 at age 101. Read more about Katherine Johnson here.


Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.