To say Katherine Johnson was a trailblazer doesn’t do her story justice. In the 1950’s, the computers used to calculate the guidance of airplanes and rockets were so large they filled entire floors of buildings, and their programs were coded on hundreds of bulky paper “punch cards.” Fortunately, there was another type of computer available to check and recheck the vital work of making sure the humans sent into space made it back to Earth safely.

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Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980

Katherine started working as one of these “human computers” in 1953, before NASA was even created. She continued her work and became a NASA employee when the agency was formed in 1958. Katherine’s calculations were so exact that in 1961 she was asked to confirm the trajectory of the first U.S. astronaut in space. As Katherine would tell the NASA mission planners, “You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.” This amazing talent did not go unnoticed, and she had a part in almost every major NASA mission until she retired in 1986. This included the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Apollo 13 rescue effort.

Although Katherine made extremely complex calculations look simple, her life was anything but easy –  she was a female research mathematician when the field was limited to mostly men, and as an African-American, for most of her life there were severe restrictions on where she could live and work.

Katherine was part of a remarkable team of mathematicians and engineers who made human spaceflight possible in its early years, and she always gives credit to this team when asked about her career.

Katherine’s persistence and talent broke down barriers and mapped the trajectories of spaceflights for over three decades. There are so many obstacles to exploring space, but with teamwork and perseverance, and building on the work of others, these problems can be overcome.

As Katherine once said:

“I teach you what the problem is, how to attack it – if you attack it properly you’ll get the answer.”


We’re excited for teams to explore space this season. The FIRST® LEGO® League Jr. MISSION MOONSM and FIRST® LEGO® League INTO ORBITSM seasons launch on August 1 – gather your #STEMsquad and launch your mission.