Principal DK Life Stories - Katherine Johnson

DK Life Stories - Katherine Johnson

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Life Stories

Katherine

Johnson

Life Stories

Katherine

Johnson
by Ebony Joy Wilkins
Illustrated by Charlotte Ager

Editor Allison Singer
Senior Editors Satu Fox, Marie Greenwood
Senior Designer Joanne Clark
Project Editor Roohi Sehgal
Editor Radhika Haswani
Project Art Editors Radhika Banerjee, Yamini Panwar
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Picture Researcher Aditya Katyal
Illustrator Charlotte Ager
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Publishing Director Sarah Larter
Subject Consultant Jamor Gaffney
Literacy Consultant Stephanie Laird
First American Edition, 2019
Published in the United States by DK Publishing
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2019 Dorling Kindersley Limited
DK, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC
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Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication
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Published in Great Britain by Dorling Kindersley Limited
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ISBN: 978-1-4654-7912-9 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-4654-7962-4 (Hardcover)
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SEE ALL THERE IS TO KNOW
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4

Dear Reader,
Katherine Goble Jo; hnson took control of her
learning by questioning and pushing boundaries.
As an African-American student in the 1920s
and 1930s, she could have let the many roadblocks
that had been set in her way stop her. Instead,
she used them to drive her success. She had
a team of family and knowledgeable mentors
behind her, and with their support and her
ambition, she soared.
Writing Katherine’s story has inspired my
own work, and when you read it, I hope it
inspires you, too—to face fears, to work
diligently, and to push for a fair place in this
world. She’s a role model, and she paved the
way for many young scientists.
Katherine once said, “There’s no such thing as
a dumb question. It’s dumb if you don’t ask it.”
I’m going to accept that challenge and ask more
questions as I pursue new goals. I challenge you
to do the same.
Sincerely,
Ebony Joy Wilkins, PhD

5

life of.

2

3

Th e

1

Kathe ..
r
i
n
Johnson e
7
pushing for

change

1
counting on

katherine
page 8

6
woman at

work

page 42

page 52

8
the space

race

page 60

9
apollo 11
page 72

2
3

asking

questions

separate and

unequal

page 14

page 22

5

4

breaking

barriers
page 28

a new

journey
page 36

10

11

“One giant

leap”

page 80

an incredible

career
page 92

awards and

acclaim
page 100

12

Chapter

1

1
2

3

Counting on Katherine
Katherine was born in 1918, in the town
of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Segregation was the law of the land.

During the 1800s, the government had decided
that it was legal to separate people based on
their race. African-American people were
forced to live and work
in communities separate
USA
White
from white people. This
Sulphur
separation meant that
Springs
African-Americans could
not be in the same schools,
neighborhoods, churches, restaurants, buses
or trains, or even hospitals with people of
other races.
When Joshua McKinley Coleman and
Joylette Roberta Lowe got married in 1909
8

SYSTEM OF SEPARATION
Segregation was a system that separated people of different
races in many areas of life, including education. This
practice kept black people down in society. Their schools,
neighborhoods, and public transportation received less
money than those for white people, and they were often
paid less money for the same jobs.

in Danville, Virginia, segregation caused them
to face a great many challenges. However,
they were determined to fight for what they
wanted, and despite these challenges, the
Colemans had high hopes for themselves and
their future. After moving to West Virginia in
1910, they took on various jobs around the
tiny town of White Sulphur Springs.
9

To provide for the future family they
wanted, Joshua took on jobs as a farmer,
lumberman, janitor, handyman, and hotel
worker. Joylette worked as a schoolteacher.
A few years later, their dream of having
a family became a reality. The couple would
end up having four children together. Horace,
born in 1912, was the oldest Coleman child.
Margaret was born a year later, in 1913, and
Charles followed in 1915. Last, but not at all
least, was Joylette and Joshua’s youngest child,
born on August 26, 1918—Katherine.
Both Joshua and Joylette
believed that education was
the key to survive and do
well in life. Because of
this, they encouraged
their children to work
hard and to achieve
amazing things. For
Katherine, this
was easy from
the start.
10

Joylette and Joshua recognized Katherine’s
love of numbers when she was very young.
Even before she was old enough to go to
school, Katherine had developed a talent
for counting.
Katherine was envious when her three
siblings started school before her. As the
youngest, she had to wait her turn until
her first day of school came, but she
didn’t waste any of this time. When
Horace, Margaret, and Charles
left for school each morning,
Katherine followed them and
counted their footsteps from
the farm where they lived
to the schoolhouse.
In fact, Katherine
counted everything she
could. Her family went
to church together,
and she counted the
number of steps on
the way there.
11

When it was her turn to help clean the
kitchen after meals, Katherine counted the
number of dishes, knives, and forks that she
washed. When she played outside on the farm,
she counted the number of steps to the road
from home.
As she grew up, there were few things that
Katherine didn’t count. She became known
in the community as the “little girl who loved
to count,” and Katherine herself once said,
“Anything that could be counted, I did.”
Because Katherine was so bright and
curious as a child, those around her encouraged
her to use her natural gift with numbers.
Counting was her f irst love.

4
5

6
12

3

2
1

“Anything
that could be
counted,
I did.”
Katherine Johnson,
2015

13

Chapter

asking

2

questions

After what felt like a very long wait, Katherine
finally started school at age five. She could
already count and read on her own.

Because of these skills, she was able to skip
straight into the second grade. Skipping
grades would turn out to be a pattern—
Katherine did so well at school, she would
later skip fifth grade, as well.
Her parents encouraged her to continue
excelling at this quick pace, and they led by
example. On the farmland the
family owned, Katherine
DID YOU
KNOW?
would watch as her father
managed numbers while
Katherine was good
at many school
he worked. Even though he
subjects, but she has
didn’t go to school past the
said that her worst
was history.
sixth grade, Joshua had a
14

natural talent for numbers.
He could calculate the amount
of wood one tree could
provide just by looking
at it. He could also help
Katherine solve some of
the math problems she
was given as homework.
Katherine learned
about teamwork and helping others
by watching her mother teach. In the early
20th century, most women were expected to
stay at home to raise children, and those who
worked outside of the home were usually
teachers or nurses. Joylette had become a
teacher, and she was passionate about her
work and her students.
Naturally smart and with excellent role
models at home, Katherine continued to do
well at school. It was no surprise to anyone in
her family when she was ready for high school
at only 10 years old, which meant she would be
learning alongside her older siblings.
15

Finding a high school where Katherine
would be welcomed proved to be a challenge.
Although she was ready for high school, high
school wasn’t exactly ready for her. There was
a school for white children in White Sulphur
Springs, but there was no high school available
to African-American students. Katherine and
her brothers and sister would have to either
find somewhere else to continue their lessons,
or stop going to school entirely.
Ending her schooling was not an option
for Katherine. She loved learning too much,
and her parents were too passionate about
education to allow hers to end. They
found a high school
for black children
in Institute,

16

West Virginia, on the campus
of West Virginia State
college—more than
WEST VIRGINIA
100 miles (160 km)
Institute
away from their
home in White
White Sulphur
Sulphur Springs.
Springs
Joshua and Joylette
had to make a difficult decision, and they
decided to make a sacrif ice. Joshua would
remain on the farm to continue his work while
the rest of the family would move to Institute.
Though the family would be apart during the
school year, they believed it was worth it for
the children’s education.
The decision to move turned out to be a
good one. Katherine continued to thrive. She
found herself quickly conquering high-school
level math. She was introduced to new subjects,
too, many of which she liked.
What is
sacrifice?

An action someone takes to give up
something valuable for another person,
or for the greater good.
17

But math always
remained her favorite.
“Everything is math,”
she once said. “It’s just
there. You’re either right
or you’re wrong.”
Despite her strong
preference for math,
Katherine had many
talents. She studied French and learned to
play the piano, an instrument she would one
day help others learn, too. She also studied
astronomy, the science of space.
There was a secret to Katherine’s success:
asking questions. In her classes, her hand was
always in the air. Sometimes she would notice
her classmates or siblings struggling during
their lessons, and she would ask questions that
she knew they were too shy to ask. Often they
were questions she already knew the answers
to, but she didn’t mind. “There’s no such thing
as a dumb question,” Katherine said. “It’s
dumb if you don’t ask it!”
18

“There’s no such
thing as a

dumb
question.
It’s dumb
if you

don’t ask it!“
Katherine Johnson,
2011

19

Katherine’s high-school teachers noticed
right away that she was a positive inf luence
on her classmates. They began creating new
classes specifically with Katherine in mind—
like analytic geometry, which the school did
not offer previously.
Two teachers in particular gave Katherine
advice and watched out for her well-being.
Her math teacher, Angie Turner King, was
a very talented mathematician herself.
She earned a PhD in math and
chemistry by studying during
the school’s summer vacations.
Katherine’s other mentor
was her high-school
principal, Sherman
H. Gus.

What is
geometry?
20

The math of shapes. Analytic geometry
is an advanced type of geometry that
uses sets of numbers called coordinates.

Mr. Gus would sometimes walk Katherine
home from school. Along the way, he would
point out the night sky’s constellations, helping
to grow Katherine’s love of astronomy.
Both Dr. King and Mr. Gus encouraged
Katherine to keep asking questions about
the world. Together, they helped Katherine
develop the curiosity that would serve her
well for the rest of her life.

21

Chapter

3

Separate and unequal
Katherine graduated high school with
honors at just 14 years old, and she was
headed for college at 15.

Many students at her school got jobs after
graduation—but Katherine had her sights set
on a career in math, and she would need to
further her education to get it.
She was just f ine with that!
Katherine looked forward
to going to college, a goal her
parents had always dreamed
of for their children.
Colleges at the time were
segregated, just like other
schools. Katherine enrolled
in West Virginia State, which
was an all-black college then.
22

Some people believed that segregation of
schools had a negative impact on students.
Others, white people in particular, thought
that segregation was necessary. Either way,
Katherine was used to learning in schools for
only black students, and she refused to let it
concern her one bit.
Because she was such a math whiz, Katherine
breezed through the courses offered to her. Her
confidence, curiosity, and mind for math helped
her learn at a fast pace.

West Virginia
State opened
in 1891. Today,
nearly 30,000
students are
enrolled there.

23

As always, Katherine helped her fellow
students—and once again, her teachers took
notice. When she had completed and mastered
all of the math courses at West Virginia State by
her third year in school, her professors created
more advanced courses especially for her.
Her love of math was unwavering, and her
professors began helping her think about what
kind of career she might like. One professor,
Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, introduced

TOP-NOTCH TEACHER
Dr. Claytor taught at West
Virginia State between 1933
and 1936. He was the third
African-American to receive
a PhD in mathematics, but he
was prevented from having a
successful career in research by
racist attitudes that blocked his
progress. Later, top researchers
did want to hire him, but he
had decided to devote his life
to teaching students instead.

24

Katherine to the idea of working as a research
mathematician. A research mathematician is
someone who works to develop math theories
and who looks for trends, or
patterns, in sets of data. It
may sound complicated,
but as soon as she
learned what the job
was, Katherine was
hooked. In this role,
she would be able to put
her math skills to use in
real-world settings, instead
of just at school. So it was
decided: Katherine
would be a research
mathematician. Now
she had a career path
and a dream.
Unfortunately, there weren’t many job
opportunities for Katherine when she
graduated from college in 1937. She was
African-American and she was a woman,
25

which was not a good
combination for the job
market at the time.
Katherine graduated
Employers were legally
from college when she
was just 18 years old.
allowed to choose not
to hire candidates like
Katherine. The odds of her
f inding work, even with her college
degree, were extremely unlikely.
Katherine kept her hopes up. She considered
every opportunity that presented itself, including
one she had expected: teaching. Katherine knew
women were expected to work as teachers or
nurses, or to stay home with children. She didn’t
have children yet, and she had always shown

NOW?
DID YOU K

26

an ability for teaching others. Right after her
graduation from West Virginia State, she took a
job as a high-school teacher in Marion, Virginia.
There, she taught French, gave piano lessons,
and helped with the student choir.
Katherine liked teaching her students,
and she was good at it. However, soon a new
opportunity would come up that Katherine
never expected, one that would set her on the
career path of her dreams.

27

Chapter

4

Breaking barriers
Katherine was teaching class one day in 1939
when the former president of West Virginia
State, Dr. John W. Davis, approached her.

Dr. Davis had a new opportunity for her, one
she hadn’t seen coming. He knew Katherine
had been interested in continuing her studies,
but in the state of West Virginia, there were
no graduate programs at black colleges. In
the past, that would have meant Katherine’s
studies were over.
However, the year before, the US Supreme
Court had ordered traditionally white colleges
to open their doors to black students. This
process of putting black and white students
What is the US
Supreme Court ?
28

The highest court in the United States. It is
one of the three branches of government
established by the US Constitution.

IMPORTANT RULING
In 1935, a black student named Lloyd
Gaines applied for law school at the
University of Missouri. He was denied
entry because of his race. Because
there was no similar school for black
students nearby, the Supreme Court
ruled that the university either had
to create one or let him in.

into the same schools was called integration.
The ruling would be life-changing for
many people, Katherine included.
When the governor of West
Virginia asked Dr. Davis for
the names of three exceptional
black students, Katherine made
the list. She was accepted for
the graduate school’s summer
session to study mathematics.
As a parting gift, her boss at
the high school gave her a set
of reference books to help with
her studies.
29

Katherine’s mother moved in with her
to help her adjust back into life as a student.
She was also there for much-needed moral
support. Being one of the first black students
in a traditionally white school would not be
easy. Katherine knew people might be hostile
to her because of her race. She also knew that
she would have to work harder than she had
in her entire life.
Katherine would be going to school with
white students for the very f irst time. Luckily,
she didn’t have to start this journey alone.

30

Two other African-Americans, Kenneth James
and W. O. Armstrong, had been selected by
Dr. Davis to attend the school, too. (A few years
later, Kenneth James would become the first
black student to earn a master’s degree from
West Virginia State. W. O. Armstrong would
earn his master’s degree one year later.)
It was tough on the three of them to be
pioneers at West Virginia at a time when the
work of white people was valued above that
of African-Americans—and especially above
the work of African-American women.

31

NOW?
K
U
O
Y
D
DI

The integration of colleges
was an important step in the
Schools were officially
f ight for equality and fair
integrated starting in
treatment for students of all
1954 after a famous
case, Brown v. Board
races. However, that didn’t
of Education.
mean the change would be
simple or easy.
In some schools and colleges, the f irst black
students to attend what had been white-only
schools had to arrive at school with a police
escort. Some white families did not want
African-American students there, so despite
the new laws, there was a lot of tension. In
some cases, there was violence.

INTEGRATION VIOLENCE
Bringing white and black students together to learn was
not an easy task. Some white parents were not ready to
see their children in an integrated school. They waved
banners and screamed at black children who were
trying to go to school. This was especially frightening
because crowds of white people sometimes hurt or even
killed black people.

32

Katherine had broken many barriers in her
lifetime already. She’d skipped grades, mastered
math at all grade levels, and graduated college
early with the highest honors. In her new life as
a graduate student, though, Katherine would
have to prove herself all over again. Her very
presence in West Virginia State’s graduate
program angered the people there who didn’t
believe in integration. Because of this, she
wasn’t able to focus only on her studies and
building friendships. She also had to worry
about her safety.
Many of her new classmates were nice to
her, but some of the students were not friendly
at all. Neither Katherine nor her classmates

33

were used to being in class with students
of other races. The experience was new to
everyone involved, including her professors.
With that newness came uneasiness, and
sometimes meanness. Some students and
instructors discriminated against Katherine
just because of her skin color. They thought
that she couldn’t and shouldn’t learn in the
presence of other students just because she
had darker skin.
Despite any discomfort Katherine might
have felt, she was glad to have her family’s
support. Her mother was
close by to listen and to
help Katherine when
she needed her most.

34

With her mother’s support, Katherine made
the decision to succeed despite any harmful
negativity that came her way.
Over the course of the summer session,
Katherine’s graduate school professors began
to see how special her mind really was. Her
math skills were beyond those of most of
her classmates, and her attitude toward
learning was inspiring.
Katherine was doing well at graduate school
because, for her, excelling was the only option.
For this reason, her professors began to treat
her fairly and support her in her goals.

35

Chapter

5

A new journey
Katherine met and married James Francis
Goble in 1939, the same year she began
attending graduate school.

When the summer session was over, Katherine
had a difficult decision to make. There was
nothing she loved more than studying math and
using her talents and skills to help others, but,
now that she was married, Katherine
was eager to start a family. Her
parents had been hardworking and
dedicated to their children. They had
sacrificed much in order for Katherine
and her siblings to have a good life.
Katherine was willing to sacrifice for
her future family, too—in this case,
by leaving graduate school to focus
on having and raising kids.
36

A little over a year after Katherine made
her decision, she and James had their first
child—a baby girl they named Joylette, the
same name as Katherine’s mother. They would
have two more daughters—Constance and
Katherine—in the years that followed.
In the early 1950s, once their children had
grown from babies into young girls, Katherine
and James moved their family to Newport
News, Virginia. Once there, James began
working as a painter at the Newport News
shipyard and Katherine worked as a substitute
math teacher while their daughters settled into
their new schools.

The Newport News shipyard
was founded in 1886 and is
still active today.
37

Katherine adjusted
well to her new life in
Newport News. She
and James worked
hard at their new jobs,
and they participated
in the goings-on of the
community. Katherine
was known in several social
circles as well as in her church for her service
to her neighbors, and she developed a close,
supportive circle of friends.
Katherine was also a member of Alpha
Kappa Alpha Sorority, one of the first
organizations for black women. She and the
other women in this group focused on advocacy
and social change. Katherine especially
advocated for better education for AfricanAmerican children, a cause both she and
James strongly believed in.
What is
advocacy?
38

Publicly supporting a certain person or group,
often with the intention of raising money or
convincing others to join the cause.

ALPHA KAPPA ALPHA
A sorority is a society of people, typically female college
students, who come together to socialize and advocate
for causes. Katherine’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, has
more than 1,000 chapters across the country.

Although Katherine liked her new life in
Newport News, she still dreamed of something
more. She had fulfilled her dream of having a
family, but she had not yet fulfilled her dream of
becoming a research mathematician.
Then one day in 1952, her brother-in-law told
her about an unusual newspaper advertisement he
had seen. The National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics (NACA) had placed an ad calling
for women to apply for jobs at Langley Research
Center in Hampton, Virginia.
39

The ad read, “Reduce your household
duties! Women who are not afraid to roll up
their sleeves and do jobs previously filled by
men should call the Langley Memorial
Aeronautical Laboratory.”
Katherine had never been afraid to work
hard. She knew this might be her chance.

E YOUR
REDUHCOLD DUTIES!
HOUSE

40

“Women who are
not afraid to roll
up their
sleeves...should
call the Langley
Memorial
Aeronautical
Laboratory.”
1952 newspaper
advertisement

41

Chapter

6

Woman at work
The 1952 newspaper ad calling for women
workers was unusual, but it would have been
even more unusual 11 years earlier.

In 1941, President Roosevelt had declared that
discrimination in the workplace was no longer
allowed. This declaration happened partly as a
result of World War II. While many men were
off fighting in the war, women were needed to
take on jobs at home that men usually did.
Despite President Roosevelt’s declaration,
many companies and organizations were still
not willing to hire women, even by the 1950s.
However, some did choose to open their doors
to women, many for the first time.
What is
discrimination?
42

The practice of treating one person or group
of people worse than others based solely on
their race, gender, or other attribute.

WORLD WAR II
World War II (1939–1945) broke out in Europe when
Germany invaded Poland. Fighting soon spread across
Europe and then much of the rest of the world. The
United States joined the war in 1941. It teamed up with
the Allies (including Britain, France, and the Soviet Union)
to defeat the Axis powers (including Germany and Italy).

NACA was one of those organizations—
and, even better, they were allowing AfricanAmerican women to apply, too. This gave
talented specialists like Katherine a longawaited opportunity to further their careers.
NACA’s Langley Research Center was a
government agency in Hampton, Virginia, that
conducted research on f lying technologies, f light
safety, and airplane designs.
43

Flight had been a crucial area of research
during World War II. World leaders understood
that the countries with the most airplanes would
win the war. Airplanes did many important
jobs—they carried soldiers and supplies, helped
the military keep track of where the enemy was,
and dropped bombs during battle. By 1943, the
United States had three times the number of
airplanes Germany had.
The war had been over for seven years when
Katherine first learned of Langley’s newspaper

FLYING TO WIN
During World War II, bombers, fighters, and transport
planes were made that were bigger, better, and faster
than ever before. The Allies’ mighty air power helped
them win the war. This type of American aircraft
was often used by the Allied powers.

Curtiss P-40E Warhawk
44

ad in 1952, but f light research
DID YOU K
NOW?
was still going strong.
Katherine was happy as a
NACA would change
math teacher, but she was
its name to NASA, or the
National Aeronautics and
excited for the opportunity
Space Administration,
to put her math skills to use
in 1958.
as a research mathematician
in this critical area.
Katherine applied for the position, but she
was too late—the jobs had already been taken.
Never one to give up, Katherine kept her eyes
open for another opportunity to apply.
The next year, Katherine got
her next chance, and this time
she was successful! She started
working for NACA in 1953,
in the organization’s Guidance
and Navigation Department.
Katherine was hired to
be a “human computer.”
This meant she would
calculate data and analyze
information for the male
45

BEGINNING OF COMPUTERS
In the early 1940s, engineers in the United States had
begun designing a machine that could be programmed
to solve math problems. It was called the ENIAC (the
Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It was
the first modern computer. Over time, computers would
become much smaller and more efficient.

engineers at Langley. The work, which desktop
computers would do in later years, had to be
done by hand at the time.
In an interview on television in 2011,
Katherine described the work she did:
“You had big data sheets, with maybe 15 or
20 columns across and 25 lines down, and
46

you solved those all the way across for days.
It was fascinating.”
Katherine was part of a team of 12 AfricanAmerican human computers, all female research
mathematicians. They included Mary Jackson,
who worked on a supersonic pressure tunnel
project, and Dorothy Vaughan, who became
the f irst African-American manager at Langley.
The 12 women worked well together. They
calculated new technological advances and
f light-experiment data. The women built strong
friendships in the office, and they enjoyed one
another’s company outside of work, too.

47

Katherine worked on math
calculations with a pool (group)
of women. She once called them
“computers who wore skirts.”
48

The human computers would often be
asked to work on “special projects,” where
they would shadow the engineers as they did
their research, then calculate and analyze the
engineer’s data.
After only two weeks on the job, Katherine
was given her first special project. It was for the
Maneuver Loads Branch. She researched data
from f light tests and investigated the math
behind plane crashes that were caused by
turbulence. She did so well on the project,
she was asked to keep working for the division.
Katherine spent the next four years there.
During her time at Langley, Katherine
earned a reputation as being someone who
often spoke up and asked questions. “The
women did what they were told to do,” she
said. “They didn’t ask questions or take the
task any further. I asked questions. I wanted
to know why.”
What is
turbulence?

When a flying aircraft experiences sudden,
violent movements because of changes in
the air.
49

Katherine’s years of studying had prepared
her well for her role at Langley. Her dream
of using her math skills for her career was
f inally coming true—she’d set her goal, and
now she was achieving it!
Unfortunately, there was sadness in her life,
too. In December 1956, Katherine’s husband
became very sick and died. Katherine was left
alone with her three daughters, all of whom
were in high school. Thanks to her work, she
was still able to support her family.

50

Katherine poses for a
portrait in Hampton,
Virginia, in about 1960.

51

Chapter

7

Pushing for change
Although Katherine and her female coworkers
were allowed in the workplace, some things
had not changed.

The human computers were considered subprofessionals, which meant their work was
thought of as a level below the engineers’.
They were looked down on by the men, and
they were required to work and eat separately.
Katherine tried not to let the tension caused
by the working conditions slow her down.

52

DID YOU
While she excelled at
KNOW?
Langley, Katherine kept
Katherine wrote
thinking about how to
a report on orbital
improve access and fair
flight. It was the first
report
in her division
treatment for others.
written by a woman.
She was hardworking
and dedicated to equality
in the workplace for people
of all races and genders.
There were a lot of rules about what
African-Americans couldn’t do. There were
also a lot of rules about what women couldn’t
do. Katherine wanted to know why the rules
were there in the first place. She also wanted
to make room for future generations of
scientists who would come after her.
Katherine’s assignment was to calculate.
She loved doing this, but in order to do her job
better, she needed to learn what the engineers
were learning. Katherine was determined to
work more closely with the engineers, but some
of the men didn’t believe Katherine should be
included in their meetings.
53

“I asked
questions.
I wanted to
know why.
They got used
to me...being the
only woman
there.”
Katherine Johnson,
2013

54

No woman had ever attended these meetings
before. No woman had even asked to attend the
meetings before.
Katherine was persistent, and she would
not take no for an answer. She questioned
the people who told her that she couldn’t
participate, and she stood up for herself by
asking if there was a law that kept her out of
the meetings. There wasn’t—and Katherine
became the f irst woman to go to them.
Later in her life, when Katherine was asked
about going to the meetings, she said, “They
got used to me being the only woman there.”
She soon was known among the engineers
for her extensive knowledge of geometry, her
leadership skills, and her inquisitive nature.

55

Although they had been unsure at first,
the engineers were impressed by Katherine’s
contributions to the meetings. They started
trusting her to ask the right questions and to
come up with strong solutions. They could see
she didn’t just follow directions—she always
wanted to know more.
Meanwhile, Katherine’s personal life
took a happy turn. The pastor of her
church in Newport News introduced
her to Lieutenant Colonel James A.
Johnson, a Korean War veteran.
Later, in 1959, the two would
get married.
Back at Langley, because she
had gained the trust of her male colleagues,
Katherine was called upon to work on several
special projects. One of those projects gave her
the chance to contribute equations to a report
called “Notes on Space Technology.”
What is a
lieutenant colonel?
56

A senior officer in the US Army,
Air Force, or Marines.

“Notes on Space Technology” included
a collection of lectures assembled by engineers
from NACA’s Flight Research Division and
Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Of the
many people who contributed to this important
report, Katherine was the only woman.
After the report came out in 1958, some
of the engineers who worked on it were asked
to join a special task force called the Space
Task Group. Engineer Dr. Robert Gilruth was
appointed the group’s leader.
Katherine was asked to be part of the Space
Task Group as well. Being put on this project
was a momentous occasion in her life.
She had already made contributions
to “Notes on Space
Technology.” Soon she
DID YOU KNOW?
would make even more
The original Space
contributions to space
Task Group was made
travel—ones for which
up of 45 people: eight
secretaries and human
people all over the
computers, and
world would one day
37 engineers.
recognize her.
57

In the late 1950s, the United States was
locked in a heated competition with another
country—the Soviet Union. Katherine would
play a role in helping to put the United States
in the lead of that competition.
It was the country’s biggest race to date,
and it was called the Space Race.

58

This was the
entrance to the
headquarters of
the Space Task
Group at NASA.

Maxime Faget (second
from right) was another
member of the Space
Task Group. Here, he
examines a spacecraft
model with coworkers.

Robert Gilruth (second
from left) led the Space
Task Group. He was a
space pioneer who became
the first director of NASA’s
Manned Spacecraft Center.
This photograph is from
August 1960.
59

Chapter

8

The Space Race
In 1958, the Space Race between the United
States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) was
getting intense.

The year before, in 1957, the Soviet Union
had sent Sputnik 1, the f irst artificial satellite,
into space. Now both countries were racing to
be the f irst to send an aircraft operated by a
human into space. The pressure was on.
NACA was determined to be the first to
accomplish the task. To prove this, in 1958,
NACA became NASA, which stands
for the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration.
As part of NASA’s newly
formed Space Task Group,
Katherine was asked to work on
the first program to put a human
NASA’s 1958 logo
60

in space. It was called
Project Mercury.
Project Mercury
had three goals: to send a
human-operated aircraft
into orbit around the Earth;
to study how the human body
reacts to being in space; and to safely bring
both the aircraft and the astronaut home.
Katherine’s contribution to the project
would be to calculate launch windows. A launch
window is the exact moment when a spacecraft
needs to take off to reach space.
Figuring out when these windows would
happen was not an easy job. Katherine had to
determine the right launch speed of the aircraft,
its speed through the air, its direction, and the
landing spot it would come back to. One small
mistake in the calculations could cause the
whole mission to fail.
Katherine had spent her whole life so far
preparing for this, and because of her excellent
past performance, the engineers building the
61

YURI GAGARIN
Yuri Gagarin was a pilot in the
Soviet Union’s air force before he
was a cosmonaut (the Russian term
for astronaut). After his iconic flight,
he went on to train other
cosmonauts.

spacecraft trusted her with the trajectory
calculations. She knew the stakes were high.
She would not let them, or herself, down.
However, the Soviets were one step ahead.
In 1961, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the
f irst person to travel into space and orbit
the Earth. He went into space in the Vostok 1
spacecraft and spent one hour and 48 minutes
there before parachuting back to Earth.
Just one month later, on May 5, 1961, the
United States was ready to put Project Mercury
into action by sending its f irst human-operated
mission into space.
What is a
trajectory?
62

The path an object follows through space.
When you throw a ball, the path it takes
through the air is its trajectory.

Katherine handled the trajectory
analysis for the f light. Trajectory analysis
was critical to the success of the mission
and the safety of the astronaut. It was
about where the spacecraft would
land and how it would get home.
Alan Shepard, the astronaut who would
be going on the mission, was confident
that Katherine’s math would get him
into space and back home again safely.
The atmosphere was tense on
the day the mission launched. The
Alan Shepard
Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket would carry
Shepard into space in the Freedom 7 capsule. After
a long wait, Shepard was
blasted 116 miles (187 km)
up through the atmosphere.
He had become the first
American in space.
The Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket
launches from Cape Canaveral on
astronaut Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7
mission into space.
63

Shepard’s journey was an amazing mission
for Katherine to have been part of. Because of
the mission’s success, Katherine was assigned
to work on important data for another f light
in 1962. This time, the plan was to send a
human-operated spacecraft around the Earth,
as the Soviets had done with Yuri Gagarin.
Astronaut John Glenn would be going on
this mission. He knew how important accurate
calculations were. By this time, a computer was
available to electronically calculate the mission,
but Glenn didn’t trust the machines to be
accurate. They often made mistakes—it was
still the early days of computing.
JOHN GLENN
John Glenn was one of the Mercury
Seven, the seven pilots competing
to be the first-ever astronauts. He
was chosen to pilot the MercuryAtlas 6 on America’s mission to
send a human into orbit.

64

Katherine works at her
desk at NASA’s Langley
Research Center in 1962.

65

Instead, John Glenn trusted a different kind
of computer: a human one named Katherine.
The astronaut requested that Katherine check
the machine’s numbers for his f light trajectory,
to make sure they were absolutely correct. She
knew that if the machine’s calculation was off
by even just a few seconds, it could mean the
astronaut would be trapped in space. Katherine
worked quickly, checking each number using
her desk calculator.
When John Glenn heard that Katherine
had double-checked the trajectory, he said, “If
she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
66

The f light was
DID YOU KNOW?
successful, and John
Glenn became the f irst
The f irst living creature
American to orbit the
to orbit the Earth was a
Earth. He made it back
dog named Laika, sent
up by the Soviet Union
home safely—thanks in
in 1957.
part to Katherine’s
accurate calculations.
The US had finally caught up to
the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
The rivalry between the Soviet Union
and the United States was far from over. Both
countries had sent a person into space and
around the Earth. Both countries had also sent
artificial satellites, with no people onboard, to
the moon. However, neither country had yet
managed to get a person on the moon. This
was the next challenge for Katherine and
NASA, and it was a challenge that had been
set by President John F. Kennedy himself.
What is rivalry?

An intense competition between two people
or groups of people.
67

JOHN F. KENNEDY
John F. Kennedy, also called “JFK,” was the
35th president of the United States. One
of his favorite projects was the idea of
putting a man on the moon. Sadly, he
was assassinated before he was able
to see his dream become a reality.

Back in 1961, on May 25, President Kennedy
had made a speech before Congress. In it, he had
announced his ambition of “landing a man on
the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”
before the end of the 1960s. He knew it would
not be an easy feat to achieve. “In a very real
sense,” he said, “it will not be one man going to
the moon...it will be an entire nation. For all of
us must work to put him there.”
With the success of missions like Alan
Shepard’s and John Glenn’s, Katherine and
her colleagues at NASA had the right
experience and lots of confidence. They
were ready to do what President Kennedy
had asked and send a man to the moon.
68

“...it will not
be one man
going to the
moon...

it will be
an entire
nation.”
John F. Kennedy,
1961

69

John Glenn enters the tiny Friendship 7
capsule to begin his historic flight into
space. On February 20, 1962, he became
the first American to orbit the Earth.

70

71

Chapter

9

Apollo 11
If all went according to plan, Apollo 11
would be the f irst spacecraft with humans
on board to land on the surface of the moon.

The three men chosen for this unique journey
were highly trained and experienced. They
were Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., the lunar
module pilot; Michael Collins, the command
module pilot; and Neil Armstrong, the mission’s
commander.
Each of the Apollo 11 astronauts had special
assignments. The plan was for Collins to stay
in orbit around the moon while Armstrong and
Aldrin went to the moon’s surface. Once on the
moon, Armstrong and Aldrin would exit their
craft. They would use cameras to take pictures
of the landscape, as well as television cameras
to send signals back to Earth.
72

COURAGEOUS CREW
Meet the three crew members of Apollo 11:
1. Neil Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, in 1930.
He was a successful pilot in the US Navy, and he joined
NACA in 1955.
2. Michael Collins was born in Rome, Italy—where his father,
a US Army major general, was stationed in 1930. He was
an experimental flight test officer in the US Air Force, then
joined NASA in 1963.
3. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. was born in Montclair, New Jersey,
in 1930. He was a pilot in the US Air Force before joining
NASA in 1963.
2
1

3

73

Armstrong and Aldrin
would also collect lunar
materials to bring back
Neil Armstrong flew
to Earth with them for
more than 200 types
of aircraft, including
further study.
jets, rockets, gliders,
Katherine and her
and helicopters.
team’s main task was to
calculate the trajectory for the
journey to the moon. They were also responsible
for figuring out backup navigational charts for
astronauts in case of electronic failure.
Katherine needed to anticipate every move
the astronauts would make. She would be told
where they would launch from and where they
should land, but the rest was up to her and the
team. Every possible problem that might arise
had to be thought about. The new computing
machines would help, but they made mistakes.
If Katherine didn’t catch mistakes, the
astronauts’ lives would be in danger.

NOW?
K
U
O
Y
D
I
D

What are lunar
materials?
74

Minerals and rocks found on the
moon’s surface.

Katherine worked tirelessly. She kept to
a tough schedule of 14- or 16-hour days and
worked many late nights. Katherine kept such
long hours and was so absorbed with making
sure the astronauts were kept safe that one
day, on her way to work, she fell asleep while
driving her car. Luckily, she woke up on the
side of the road—shaken, but unhurt.
Mission Control appreciated the work of
Katherine’s team. Their calculations would
help guide the spacecraft to the moon.

MISSION CONTROL
The Mission Control room at the Manned Space Center (now
called the Johnson Space Center) was in Houston, Texas. Here,
scientists and engineers would keep an around-the-clock
watch of the spacecraft and talk to the crew over radio.

75

Blast off! On the
morning of July 16,
1969, the launch
vehicle for the
Apollo 11 mission
takes off at Cape
Kennedy, Florida.

76

After many long days at the office, Katherine
and the rest of the team’s hard work was put
to the test. On July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m.,
the Saturn V launch vehicle for the Apollo 11
spacecraft launched from Cape Kennedy (now
called Cape Canaveral) at the Kennedy Space
Center in Florida.
Hundreds of millions of people all over the
world were glued to their TV screens, waiting
to see what would happen next.

77

78

Spectators watch the Apollo 11 launch at Cape
Kennedy. Some people traveled from across
the country to witness the incredible event.

79

Chapter

10

“One giant leap”
The three astronauts sat in a tiny capsule
at the top of the Saturn V rocket as it blasted
into space from the Kennedy Space Center.

After that, a series of precise events took place,
each carefully calculated by Katherine and her
colleagues on the ground. First, the Saturn V
rocket’s engines fired to send the spacecraft out
of the Earth’s orbit. Then the command and
service modules separated from the rest of the
craft, rearranged themselves, and reconnected,
ready to continue on to the moon. The rest of
the rocket fell away, and the Apollo 11 spacecraft
began its journey.
The entire way there, the astronauts kept
their eyes on the numbers Katherine and her
colleagues had carefully calculated. On July 17,
their second day in space, Michael Collins took
80

SATURN V ROCKET
The Apollo 11 astronauts were sent into space inside the
launch rocket Saturn V. The Apollo spacecraft was just
the top part of the craft. It had three main areas: the
command module, service module, and lunar module.
Escape rocket,
for emergencies
during launch

Apollo
spacecraft

Command
module, where
the astronauts
stayed during
launch

Service module,
which powered
the spacecraft
once it separated
from Saturn V

The bottom part
of Saturn V lifted
the Apollo 11 craft
into space.

Lunar module
(called the Eagle),
the part that
would land
on the moon

81

star sightings to compare their
calculated flight path to their
actual one. This means he
looked to see what stars were
visible and where they were,
then compared them to what
he would have expected to see if they
were on track. Finding they were off, he fired the
engine for three seconds to correct the trajectory.
The astronauts trusted the numbers Katherine
had checked and rechecked. They knew they
needed to stay as close to them as possible.

JOURNEY TO THE MOON
Apollo 11’s planned flightpath
from the Earth to the moon
and back again took the
shape of a figure eight.

1. The Apollo craft leaves
the Earth’s orbit and begins
its journey to the moon.

82

Back on the ground, the world continued to
be fascinated by the mission. On July 18, their
third day in space, the crew transmitted a
96-minute guided tour of their spacecraft back
to Earth. It was broadcast live on television.
People watched, awed by what they saw.
The journey to the moon took 102 hours,
45 minutes—just over four days. Once the
spacecraft was in lunar orbit, Collins stayed in
the command module while Armstrong and
Aldrin entered the Eagle, or the lunar module,
and took it to the moon’s surface.

3. The astronauts take the
command module back to Earth.

2. The command module stays
in orbit while the lunar module
goes down to the surface.

83

Mission Control gave the final go-ahead
for the lunar module to land on the moon’s
surface. Then Armstrong used a f ine-guidance
controller to throttle the descent engines while
Aldrin checked the module’s altitude (height)
and fuel. Both astronauts stared out of the
windows, looking for a smooth area to land.
The Eagle needed
a smooth landing. If
it got too banged up, it
might not be able to go
back to the command
module later.

84

The astronauts soon realized they were going
to be landing several miles away from their
calculated target. As the craft headed for a
dangerous f ield of large boulders, Armstrong
took manual control. He spotted a smooth plain
and eased the craft down there instead, landing
on the plain’s surface with barely 20 seconds
of descent fuel remaining. When the astronauts
arrived safely, Armstrong famously said, “The
Eagle has landed.”
The world watched, mesmerized by what
they saw next on their television screens.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY
The astronauts chose the Sea of
Tranquility as their landing site.
This is one of the several large,
dark plains, called lunar mares,
on the moon’s surface. They
were first called “seas” by early
astronomers who mistook them
for actual seas.

85

KNOW?
DID YOU

The astronauts had made
it to the moon! It was an
The moon has only
amazing achievement and
one-sixth of Earth’s gravity,
a historic moment. Neil
but the astronauts found
moving around easier
Amstrong stepped out onto
than expected.
the moon’s surface f irst,
with Buzz Aldrin following
closely behind him.
Armstrong and Aldrin planted the United
States f lag together. There is no wind on the
moon, so the f lag was held upright with wire to
keep it from drooping. Work back at NASA was
all but forgotten as the controllers turned from
their desks to watch pictures of the first moon
landing. One man’s small step was the product
of years of planning by a team of thousands.
The live broadcast of the event caught the
world’s imagination in a way that has rarely
been matched.
Armstrong and Aldrin were on the moon for
over 21 hours. They spent about two and a half of
those hours outside the Eagle walking, collecting
lunar materials and data, and taking photos.
86

Buzz Aldrin walks on the
moon’s surface. You can see
Neil Armstrong, who took
the photograph, reflected
in Aldrin’s helmet visor.

87

Their mission wouldn’t be
complete until they made it
The Apollo 11
home safely—and whether
crew collected 47½ lb
or not that happened
(21.55 kg) of lunar
materials (moon rock).
depended on how accurate
Katherine and her team’s
calculations were. The crew
needed to follow their instructions exactly to
complete their planned splashdown, or water
landing, in the Pacif ic Ocean. If they didn’t,
it could mean disaster.
Soon Armstrong and Aldrin were ready to
return. They left behind the lower section of
the lunar module, blasting off in the top section
to meet Collins in the command module. This
was a success, and together the three astronauts
began their journey home.
When the command module had
traveled back into Earth’s atmosphere,
three parachutes opened out to slow
it down on its way toward the Pacif ic
Ocean. The crew landed at 12:50 p.m.
on July 24, 1969, about 13 miles (21 km)

KNOW?
DID YOU

88

from the USS Hornet recovery ship, which was
waiting to welcome them home. This was
within the acceptable range Katherine and her
colleagues had determined.
The mission had taken eight days, three
hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds—but really,
it had taken much longer. Katherine and many
others had worked for years on this project, and
now the Space Race was won. Katherine had
never stopped believing that the mission to the
moon was possible. She said, “You have to expect
progress to be made,” and indeed it had.

The command module bobs in the Pacific Ocean as the
Apollo 11 astronauts wait for a helicopter from the USS
Hornet recovery ship to retrieve them.
89

90

Buzz Aldrin stands by
the United States flag he
and Neil Armstrong had
planted on the moon.

91

Chapter

11

An incredible career
Getting the first man on the moon with
Apollo 11 may be Katherine’s most noted
mission, but it wasn’t even close to her last.

In fact, she worked on nearly every mission
that followed at NASA while she was with
the organization. Most of her time was
spent creating backup plans for the computer
systems. She knew that the computers weren’t
perfect, and that they could sometimes fail.
She also knew that human error could occur.
Katherine refused to let either of these
potential issues jeopardize NASA’s goals.
She dedicated her skills to ensuring the safety
of the astronauts who went on their missions.
What is
human error?
92

A mistake made by a person that causes
the results of something to be wrong.

That dedication paid off in 1970
when the Apollo 13 mission experienced
malfunctions while in space. The three
astronauts on board were in serious danger
as they dealt with an oxygen tank that had
exploded, damaging many of the aircraft’s
important systems. Thanks in part to the
critical work Katherine did calculating and
perfecting backup plans, the mission was able
to return safely home.
APOLLO 13
The three Apollo 13 astronauts (from left to right: Fred
Haise, Jim Lovell, and Jack Swigert) returned safely after
their unsuccessful mission.

93

Besides working on
backup plans, Katherine
SPACE TRAVEL
spent a lot of time writing
for NASA. At one point, the
members of the Space Task
Group were asked to write a spacetravel textbook. The information they
were discovering was brand-new, so it had never
been written about before.
The engineers on the task force had other
responsibilities and projects, and they were
concerned the textbook would not be
completed by its due date. Katherine saved
the day by offering to finish it herself.
The engineers trusted her to do the
work, and to do it well—which, of
course, she did.
The space-travel textbook was
only one of the many writing
contributions Katherine made
to NASA. She also authored or
co-authored scientific research
papers on many important topics.
94

The papers explained the task force’s research
in areas such as the proper angles for satellites
orbiting the Earth, how those satellites were
expected to behave, space antennas, and more.
While at NASA, Katherine became a mentor
to many people. Although her work kept her
busy, sometimes extremely so, she always made
time to teach others. She encouraged her
coworkers to ask difficult questions, as she
herself had always done. She also helped inform
them about the programs that were
happening at Langley.
Her coworkers weren’t the only
ones who benefited from her
mentorship. As dedicated to
education as ever, Katherine
also took the time to mentor
young mathematicians.
She visited students in
classrooms across the
country to represent
NASA and the Space
Task Group.
95

NOW?
DID YOU K

During her school
visits, Katherine
Katherine authored or
encouraged students
co-authored about
to follow in her footsteps
26 research reports
during her career
by pursuing degrees and
at NASA.
careers in STEM fields.
When Katherine retired
from NASA in 1986, she had worked at the
organization for an incredible 33 years.
“I loved going to work every single day,” she
later remembered. Her love of her work paid
off. During her years of service, Katherine won
three NASA Special Achievement awards.

STEM SUBJECTS
STEM is the grouping
of four subjects (science,
technology, engineering,
and mathematics). It shows
how the subjects relate to
one another rather than
looking at them as
separate topics.

96

In the years after her retirement, Katherine
continued to spread the word about space far
and wide. She also continued writing. In 2002,
Katherine wrote a paper especially for teachers.
In it, Katherine offered ideas for how teachers
could hold space-science workshops in their
schools. Katherine’s experience as a teacher
combined with her space-travel experience
made her the perfect candidate for the job.
The workshops would allow students to interact
with real scientists and engineers, helping grow
their love of science and math.
When asked in an interview what advice
she gives to students, Katherine said that she
97

stresses the importance of doing what you love,
and always doing your best. These two pieces
of advice were instilled in Katherine from a
very young age. Her family and mentors had
helped her achieve her dream of becoming a
research mathematician by following these two
rules. Katherine continues to “pay it forward,”
or pass along the favor, by inspiring young
students today.

98

“ Follow your
passion.
Whatever
you’re doing,
do your best
at all times
and make it
as correct as
possible.”
Katherine Johnson,
2018

99

Chapter

12

awards and

acclaim

Katherine’s family, friends, and colleagues
knew how big her contribution to space f light
was—but for a while, they were the only ones.

It wasn’t until many years after Katherine’s
retirement at NASA that the rest of the world
began to pay attention. Gradually Katherine’s
reputation grew, and she started to get the
recognition she deserved. This reached its peak
in 2015 when, at the age of 97, Katherine was
given an extremely important award.
The White House,
Washington, D.C.

100

PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM
This medal is the United States’ highest civilian
honor. It is awarded by the President of the
United States to a US citizen, and it recognizes
those people who have made a very special
contribution to society in some way.

On November 24, in the East Room of the
White House in Washington, D.C., President
Barack Obama awarded Katherine the
Presidential Medal of Freedom. Katherine was
honored to receive the award, in part because
it had been given to her by the first AfricanAmerican president of the United States.
After the segregation and struggle she had
experienced earlier in her life, she had never
thought she would see an African-American
become the leader of America.
Katherine’s contributions to NASA were
groundbreaking. They had come during a
time of discrimination and prejudice against
101

both African-Americans and women. Two
months before the ceremony, in a speech to the
Congressional Black Caucus, President Obama
had said, “Black women have been a part of
every great movement in American history,
even if they weren’t always given a voice.”
That’s what made Katherine’s journey and
recognition so momentous. African-American
women have made significant contributions to
the history of the United States, but not all of
those stories have yet been heard. Receiving the
Presidential Medal of Freedom gave the world
an opportunity to listen to Katherine’s
inf luential story.
During the ceremony, President Obama read
the diverse stories and accomplishments of all 17
of the people being given the award. Katherine
was honored alongside artists, athletes, activists,
and former members of the US military.

What is the
Congressional
Black Caucus?
102

A political organization made up of the
African-American members of the United
States Congress.

President Obama
awards Katherine
with the Presidential
Medal of Freedom.

103

After placing the medals around the necks
of the recipients, the president said, “What a
great blessing to be in a nation where individuals
as diverse, from as wildly different backgrounds,
can help to shape our dreams, how we live
together, help define justice and freedom and
love. They represent what’s best in us,
and we are very, very proud to be able
to celebrate them here today.”
Katherine has accepted
many other awards in her
lifetime—including NASA’s
Group Achievement Award,
West Virginia State’s
Outstanding Alumnus of
the Year, and many honorary
degrees. However, she has
said that receiving the Presidential Medal
of Freedom was a moment that stood above
the rest.
The following spring, NASA honored
Katherine’s work by dedicating a building
at Langley to her. The Katherine G. Johnson
104

Computational Research Facility at NASA is
about 37,000 ft2 (3,400 m2) in size, and it cost
$23 million to build.
The building’s dedication ceremony took
place on May 5, 2016, the 55th anniversary
of Alan Shepard’s space f light on Freedom 7. At
the ceremony, the governor of Virginia called
Katherine a “trailblazer.” He also said that she
had played an important part in the history of
Virginia. Members of the community, NASA
employees, and students were there to show
What is a
trailblazer?

An inspiring person who does something
that has never been done before, leading
the way for other people.
105

their admiration for Katherine and her work.
When asked about the building, Katherine
joked that NASA was “crazy” for dedicating
an entire building to her—but she may have
been the only one who thought so! Katherine
has always remained modest about her
achievements, saying, “I was just doing my job.”
Today, Katherine is retired from her work,
but she is still busy. As well as spending time
with her family,
Katherine enjoys
traveling, playing
bridge, and
watching sports.
The movie Hidden Figures
(2016) tells Katherine’s story,
as well as the stories of her
coworkers Dorothy Vaughan
and Mary Jackson. It is based
on a book by the same name
by Margot Lee Shetterly,
which told the world how
their work at NASA helped
the US win the Space Race.
106

Katherine still speaks to
?
YOU KNOW
D
I
D
students about her career
and encourages them to
The movie Hidden
Figures received
pursue STEM careers.
nominations for three
She tells them, “We will
Academy Awards®.
always have STEM with us.
Some things will drop out
of the public eye and will go away,
but there will always be science, engineering,
and technology. And there will always, always
be mathematics.”
Katherine was recently asked if she still
counts things. She replied, “Oh, yes. And
things have to be parallel. I see a picture right
now that’s not parallel, so I’m going to go
straighten it. Things must be in order.”
In an address to Hampton University
graduates in 2017, Katherine offered some
advice to those who wanted to follow in her
footsteps: “Always do your best for whatever
you’re doing. Do your best. But enjoy it.
Enjoy life. As it passes by you, don’t miss
anything.” Katherine didn’t just make up
107

that advice—she lives it every moment of her
life, all the way to present day.
Katherine’s presence at NASA alone broke
many barriers that existed for most women,
especially African-American women, at the
time. Her brilliant mind for math and her
determined attitude helped put people on the
moon. When the expectation was that women
would do what they were told to do without
asking questions, she did the opposite. Because
of her courage, Katherine stood out—and in
doing so, she changed the world.

108

109

Katherine’s

family tree
r

e
Fath

Joshua McKinley
Coleman
1881–1973

her

Brot

Horace
Coleman
1912–1950

r
Siste

her

Brot

Margaret
Coleman
1913–2002

Charles
Coleman
1915–2008

First
husba
nd

James Francis
Goble
1913–1956

r

ghte

Dau

Joylette Goble
Hylick
1940–

110

Katherine’s parents
married in 1909.

Joylette Roberta
Coleman

Mother

1887–1971

Katherine
Johnson
1918–

nd
Seco nd
a
b
hus

James A.
Johnson

Constance
Goble Boykin
Garcia

c.1944–

1943–2010

r

ghte

Dau

1925–

Katherine
Goble Moore
ter

gh
Dau

Katherine married
James in 1959.
111

Timeline
On August 26,
Katherine is born
in White Sulphur
Springs, West Virginia.

Katherine graduates from
college. Over the next few
years, she teaches at schools
in Virginia and West Virginia.
Katherine graduates
from high school at
age 14.

1918

1928

1932

1933

1937

Katherine moves to
Institute, West Virginia,
with her mother and
siblings. There, she
attends a high school
for black students.
At 15, Katherine
begins studying
at West Virginia
State, an allblack college.

112

Katherine marries James Francis
Goble. They go on to have three
daughters—Joylette, Constance,
and Katherine—before James
dies of brain cancer in 1956.

NACA becomes NASA, and
Katherine joins the Space
Task Group. She works on
Project Mercury, which aims
to put a human in space.

1939
Katherine is one of the
first three black students
to attend West Virginia
State’s graduate program.

1953

1958

After several years of teaching,
Katherine becomes a “human
computer” at the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

113

Katherine marries again,
this time to US Lieutenant
Colonel James A. Johnson.

In April, Soviet
pilot Yuri Gagarin
becomes the first
person in space.

1959

1961

In July, NASA’s Apollo 11
mission is a success
when Neil Armstrong
and Buzz Aldrin land on
the moon. Katherine’s
team had spent years
on the calculations.

1962

1969

John Glenn orbits the Earth
on the Friendship 7 mission,
for which Katherine had
calculated the trajectory.

In May, Alan Shepard becomes the first
American in space. Katherine’s math
skills helped calculate his spacecraft’s
trajectory, or flight path.
114

Katherine is awarded the
Presidential Medal of
Freedom in recognition
of her groundbreaking
work at NASA.
Katherine’s career
at NASA is covered
in the book Hidden
Figures by Margot
Lee Shetterly. A movie
based on the book is
released, as well.

1986
Katherine retires
from NASA after
working there
for 33 years.

2015

2016

NASA names a building
in Katherine’s honor. She
attends the dedication
ceremony with her family.

115

Quiz

116

1

How many children did Joylette and
Joshua Coleman have?

2

Which musical instrument did Katherine
learn to play in high school?

3

Who introduced Katherine to the idea of
working as a research mathematician?

4

Which court ordered traditionally white
colleges to admit black students?

5

Where did James Goble work when he
and Katherine lived in Newport News?

6

What were the women who did calculations
by hand at NASA called?

7

To which 1958 report did Katherine
contribute equations?

Do you remember what you’ve read?
How many of these questions about
Katherine’s life can you answer?

8

What do the letters in NASA stand for?

9

On what date did Apollo 11 launch from
the Kennedy Space Center in Florida?

10

For how many seconds did Michael Collins
fire Apollo 11’s engine to correct its trajectory?

11

For how many years had Katherine worked
at NASA when she retired in 1986?

12

Which medal did Katherine receive at the
White House in 2015?

Answers on page 128
117

Who’s who?
Aldrin, Edwin (“Buzz”)
(1930– ) second person
to walk on the moon

Coleman, Margaret
(1913–2002) Katherine’s
older sister

Armstrong, Neil
(1930–2012) f irst person
to walk on the moon

Collins, Michael
(1930–2012) command
module pilot for Apollo 11

Armstrong, W. O.
(Unknown) second black
student to earn a master’s
degree at West Virginia State

Davis, John W.
(1888–1980) president of
West Virginia State from
1919 to 1953

Claytor, William
(1908–1967) math professor
at West Virginia State

Faget, Maxime
(1921–2004) spacecraft
designer and member of
the Space Task Group

Coleman, Charles
(1915–2008) Katherine’s
older brother
Coleman, Horace
(1912–1950) Katherine’s
older brother
Coleman, Joshua
McKinley
(1881–1973) Katherine’s dad
Coleman, Joylette
Roberta Lowe
(1887–1971) Katherine’s mom
118

Gagarin, Yuri
(1934–1968) Soviet pilot;
f irst person to go into space
Garcia, Constance
Goble
(1943–2010) Katherine’s
second daughter
Gilruth, Robert
(1913–2000) head of
the Space Task Group

Glenn, John
(1921–2016) f irst American
to orbit the Earth

King, Turner Angie
(1905–2004) Katherine’s
high school math teacher

Goble, James Francis
(1913–1956) Katherine’s
f irst husband

Lovell, Jim
(1928– ) Apollo 13 crew
member

Gus, Sherman H.
(Unknown) Katherine’s
high-school principal

Moore, Katherine Goble
(c.1944– ) Katherine’s
youngest daughter

Haise, Fred
(1933– ) Apollo 13 crew
member

Obama, Barack
(1961– ) president of the
US from 2009 to 2017

Hylick, Joylette Goble
(1940– ) Katherine’s oldest
daughter

Roosevelt, Franklin D.
(1882–1945) president of
the US from 1933 to 1945

Jackson, Mary
(1921–2005) Katherine’s
colleague who became
NASA’s f irst black,
female engineer

Shepard, Alan
(1923–1998) f irst American
in space
Shetterly, Margot Lee
(1969– ) author of the book
Hidden Figures

James, Kenneth
(Unknown) f irst black
Swigert, Jack
student to earn a master’s
(1931–1982) Apollo 13
degree at West Virginia State crew member
Johnson, James A.
Vaughan, Dorothy
(1925– ) Army colonel;
(1910–2008) colleague of
Katherine’s second husband Katherine’s who learned
Kennedy, John F.
(1917–1963) president of
the US from 1961 to 1963

to program computers

119

Glossary
activist
someone who takes
action against something
he or she feels is wrong
advocacy
astronomy
publicly supporting a
study of the universe
certain person or a group beyond the Earth,
aeronautics
including space, solar
science of f light
systems, and galaxies
artificial satellite
human-made device
that travels around the
Earth or another body
in space, transmitting
information

atmosphere
thick layer of gases
around the Earth that
protects it from the
burning rays of the sun
colonel
senior-ranking officer
in the US Army, Air
Force, or Marines
command module
crew cabin of the
Apollo 11 spacecraft,
also serving as the
capsule that brought
the crew back to Earth

120

Congress
law-making branch of
the US government
Congressional
Black Caucus
political organization
made up of the
African-American
members of the US
Congress
constellation
group of stars forming a
pattern in the night sky
discrimination
practice of treating one
person or a group of
people unfairly
geometry
math of shapes

graduation
receiving of an academic
degree or diploma
gravity
force that causes physical
objects to fall toward the
Earth or any other body
with mass
honorary
given as an honor, or
out of respect, and
without payment
honors
an award or symbol of
excellence or superiority
human computer
person who calculates
data and analyzes
information
human error
mistake made by a
person that causes the
results of something
to be wrong
121

integration
bringing people of
different races together
to make sure they are
treated equally

navigational charts
star charts drawn up to
help astronauts guide
their spacecraft in case
of emergency

launch window
exact moment when a
spacecraft needs to take
off to reach space

orbit
path an object takes
around another when
pulled by its gravity

lunar materials
minerals and rocks
found on the moon’s
surface

PhD
abbreviation that
stands for “Doctor of
Philosophy,” which is
an academic degree

lunar module
part of the Apollo 11
spacecraft that landed
on the moon
Mission Control
place on the Earth that
houses the equipment
and staff that control
a spacef light

research
mathematician
someone who develops
math theories and looks
for trends in sets of data
rivalry
intense competition
between two people
or groups of people
sacrifice
action someone takes
to give up something
valuable for another
or for the greater good

122

segregation
keeping people of
different races or
religions separate
from each other
service module
part of the Apollo 11
spacecraft that powered
its f light
sorority
female-only social club
at a college or university
Soviet Union
former country that
spread across Eastern
Europe and northern
Asia, made up of Russia
and 14 other states,
between 1922 and 1991
splashdown
“landing” of a space
capsule, assisted
by parachutes,
on the ocean

substitute teacher
teacher who leads a class
when the regular teacher
is away
Supreme Court
the highest court in
the United States
throttle
to control the f low
of fuel to an engine
trailblazer
inspiring person who
does something that
has never been done
before, leading the
way for others
trajectory
path an object follows
through air or space
turbulence
sudden, violent
movements experienced
by f lying aircraft due
to changes in the air

123

Index
Aa

advocacy 38
airplanes 43–45, 49
Aldrin, Edwin “Buzz” Jr.
72–74, 83–91
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
38–39
analytic geometry 20
Apollo 11 mission 72–92
Apollo 13 mission 93
Armstrong, Neil 72–74,
83–91
Armstrong, W. O. 31
astronauts 61, 62–93
astronomy 21

Bb

backup plans 74, 90, 91
Brown v. Board of Education 32

Cc

Cape Kennedy (Cape
Canaveral), Florida 63,
75, 76–79
church 11, 38, 56
Claytor, Dr. William W.
Schiefflin 24–25
Coleman, Charles 10–11
Coleman, Horace 10–11
124

Coleman, Joshua McKinley
8–11, 14–17
Coleman, Joylette Roberta
8–11, 15–17, 30, 34–35
Coleman, Margaret 10–11
colleges 22–25, 28–35
Collins, Michael 72–73,
80–83, 88
colonels 56
command module 81,
83–84, 88–89
computers 46, 64, 74, 92
Congressional Black Caucus
102
counting 11–13, 107

Dd

Danville, Virginia 9
Davis, Dr. John W. 28–29,
31
discrimination 42

Ee

Eagle lunar module 81,
83–88
engineers 52–55, 94
ENIAC (Electronic
Numerical Integrator
and Computer) 46

Ff

Faget, Maxime 59
farms 10–12, 14, 17
f lag, on moon 86, 90–91
f light 43–45, 49, 53
Freedom 7 capsule 63, 105
Friendship 7 capsule 70–71

Gg

Gagarin, Yuri 62, 64
Gaines, Lloyd 29
geometry 20
Gilruth, Dr. Robert 57, 59
Glenn, John 64–67, 68,
70–71
Goble, Constance 37
Goble, James Francis
36–38, 50
Goble, Joylette 37
Goble, Katherine 37
gravity, on moon 86
Gus, Sherman H. 20–21

Hh

Haise, Fred 93
Hampton, Virginia 39, 43
Hampton University 107
Hidden Figures 106–107
Hornet, USS 89
human computers 45–49,
52, 66
human errors 92

Ii

Institute, West Virginia
16–17
integration 29, 32

Jj

Jackson, Mary 47, 106
James, Kenneth 31
Johnson, Lieutenant Colonel
James A. 56
Johnson Space Center,
Houston, Texas 75

Kk

Katherine G. Johnson
Computational
Research Facility
104–106
Kennedy, John F. (president)
67–69
Kennedy Space Center,
Florida 77
King, Dr. Angie Turner
20–21

Ll

Laika 67
Langley Research Center
39–41, 43–50, 52–57, 95
launch windows 61
Lovell, Jim 93
Lowe, Joylette Roberta
8–11, 15–17, 30, 34–35
125

lunar materials 74, 88
lunar module 81, 83–88

Mm

Maneuver Loads Branch,
Langley 49
Marion, Virginia 27
mathematicians 25, 47, 95
mentors 95–96, 98
Mercury, Project 61–67
Mercury-Atlas 6 64
Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket
63
Mission Control 75, 84
moon 67–69, 72–92

Nn

NASA Special Achievement
awards 96
National Advisory
Committee for
Aeronautics (NACA)
39–41, 43, 45–50, 57, 60
National Aeronautics and
Space Administration
(NASA) 45, 60, 86, 92,
94–96, 100–102,
104–106, 108
Newport News, Virginia
37–39
“Notes on Space
Technology” 56–57

126

Oo

Obama, Barack (president)
101–104
orbital f light 53

Pp

Pacific Ocean 88–89
planes 43–45, 49
Presidential Medal of
Freedom 101–104
Project Mercury 61–67

Qq

questions, asking 18–19,
49, 95

Rr

research mathematicians
25, 47
research papers 94–95, 96
retirement 96
rivalry 67
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
(president) 42

Ss

sacrifice 17
satellites 60, 95
Saturn V rocket 77, 80–81
schools 14–21, 22, 96–98
Sea of Tranquility 85
segregation 8–9, 22–23, 101
service module 81

Shepard, Alan 63–64,
68, 105
Shetterly, Margot Lee 106
sororities 38–39
Soviet Union 58, 60, 62,
64, 67
Space Race 58, 60–62,
67, 89
Space Task Group 57, 59,
94–95
space-travel textbook 94
spacecraft 61–93
spectators 78–79
Sputnik 1 60
STEM (science, technology,
engineering, and math)
subjects 96, 107
Supreme Court 28–29
Swigert, Jack 93

Ww

West Virginia State 17,
22–25, 29–35, 104
White Sulphur Springs,
West Virginia 8, 9, 16
workshops 97
World War II 42–44
writing 92, 94, 95

Tt

trailblazers 105
trajectory 62–63, 66, 74
turbulence 49

Uu

University of Missouri 29
US Supreme Court 28–29

Vv

Vaughan, Dorothy 47, 106
violence 32
Vostok 1 spacecraft 62
127

Acknowledgments
DK would like to thank: Romi Chakraborty and Pallavi Narain for
design support; Lindsay Walter-Greaney for proofreading; Hilary Bird
for the index; Emily Kimball and Nishani Reed for legal advice; and
Jamor Gaffney and Stephanie Laird for consulting.
The publisher would like to thank the following
for their kind permission to reproduce their
photographs:
(Key: a-above; b-below/bottom; c-center; f-far;
l-left; r-right; t-top)
23 Alamy Stock Photo: Backyard Productions.
29 Dreamstime.com: Jim Pickerell (tr). 37 Getty
Images: Bloomberg. 39 Getty Images: Alfred
Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection.
43 Getty Images: Stocktrek Images. 44 Dorling
Kindersley: Gary Ombler / Gatwick Aviation
Museum. 46 Alamy Stock Photo: PJF Military
Collection. 48 NASA: JPL-Caltech. 51 NASA.
59 NASA: Langley Research Center (cla, cr, bl).
60 NASA. 62 NASA. 63 NASA: (cra, bl).
64 NASA. 65 NASA: Langley Research Center.
68 Alamy Stock Photo: Trinity Mirror /
Mirrorpix. 70–71 NASA. 73 NASA. 76 NASA.
78–79 Getty Images: Ralph Crane / The LIFE
Picture Collection. 84 NASA: MSFC. 85 NASA.
87 NASA: MSFC. 89 NASA. 90–91 NASA.

93 Getty Images: Time Life Pictures / NASA /
The LIFE Picture Collection. 100 Dreamstime.
com: Alberto Dubini / Dolby1985. 103 Getty
Images: Kris Connor / WireImage. 106 Alamy
Stock Photo: © Levantine Films / Entertainment
Pictures / ZUMAPRESS.com. 109 NASA.
111 NASA: (cr)
Cover images: Front: Alamy Stock Photo: NASA
Archive; Spine: Alamy Stock Photo: NASA Archive
All other images © Dorling Kindersley
For further information see: www.dkimages.com

ANSWERS TO THE QUIZ ON PAGES 116–117
1. four children; 2. piano; 3. Dr. Claytor, her professor; 4. US
Supreme Court; 5. Newport News shipyard; 6. human computers;
7. “Notes on Space Technology”; 8. National Aeronautics and
Space Administration; 9. July 16, 1969; 10. three seconds;
11. 33 years; 12. Presidential Medal of Freedom

128