Great Minds: Katherine Johnson, Human Computer

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In the early days of spaceflight, if NASA needed to plot a rocket’s path or confirm a computer’s calculations, they asked Katherine Johnson to do it. She is known as “the human computer”.

Working as a mathematician and a physicist, Johnson’s work for NASA included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths.

She started working for NASA in 1953. But her fame came during the period from 1958 to her retirement in 1986. She worked as an aerospace technologist. Some of her notable calculations include the trajectory for the 1961 space flight of Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission, the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, safe path for astronauts in the Apollo 13 mission to return home, and more.

Even when NASA used computers, they asked Johnson to verify the calculations of the computer. Her reputation for accuracy is what helped establish confidence in the new technology. Johnson also worked on the Space Shuttle Program, and many more.

Here is a short tribute to one of the most important women in the history of NASA.

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