Katherine Johnson, the NASA Mathematician Who Advanced Human Rights with a Slide Rule and Pencil

Charles Bolden

When Katherine began at NASA, she and her cohorts were known as “human computers,” and if you talk to her or read quotes from throughout her long career, you can see that precision, that humming mind, constantly at work. She is a human computer, indeed, but one with a quick wit, a quiet ambition, and a confidence in her talents that rose above her era and her surroundings.

“In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong,” she said. Her succinct words belie a deep curiosity about the world and dedication to her discipline, despite the prejudices of her time against both women and African-Americans. It was her duty to calculate orbital trajectories and flight times relative to the position of the moon—you know, simple things. In this day and age, when we increasingly rely on technology, it’s hard to believe that John Glenn himself tasked Katherine to double-check the results of the computer calculations before his historic orbital flight, the first by an American. The numbers of the human computer and the machine matched.