Black History Month: How Katherine Johnson Shot for the Moon

February 4, 2021 / Parent Resources

This Black History Month, Osmo is celebrating Black mathematicians, scientists and inventors whose creative problem-solving paved the way for future innovations. We hope these stories inspire your kids to find their own moments of brilliance and to never give up on their ideas.

No longer “hidden,” Katherine Johnson is recognized today as an essential figure in U.S. space history. As a human computer at NASA, Katherine performed complex orbital calculations that were critical to the success of the U.S. crewed spaceflights. She helped send astronaut John Glenn into orbit and the first men to the moon. And she landed these achievements while navigating the additional challenges that came with being a Black woman in an overwhelmingly white and male environment.

Katherine handled the different obstacles she encountered by relying on both her natural and learned abilities. Katherine always had a knack with numbers. In fact, her gift enabled her to graduate from college at the age of 18 with the dream of becoming a research mathematician. Unfortunately, most research mathematician positions were not open to women or people of color at the time. When the opportunity finally arose for her to join the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a research mathematician, she jumped at the chance. She worked for NACA until 1958, when the federal government dissolved the agency to make way for the space organization we know today: NASA. 

Katherine’s Approach to Creative Problem-Solving

At NASA, Katherine’s biggest responsibility was to review the NASA engineers’ work for errors that could spell life or death for the astronauts on each mission. Katherine developed a creative problem-solving strategy that ensured her work was thorough and accurate: 

  1. First, she would start with the “why.” While many of Katherine’s colleagues refrained from asking additional questions or doing more than what was asked of them, Katherine made a point to ask the questions that would get her to the heart of the problem.
  1. Then, once she had her “why,” Katherine would go one step further with her work. She knew her role was about more than simply checking work. She needed to think deeply about the choices behind the equations on the page, and explore the full range of choices the engineers could make. 
  1. Finally, after Katherine had a complete picture of the problem she was trying to solve, she would go about attacking it. As Gerry Griffin, a former NASA flight director and director of Johnson Space Center, put it, “Perhaps Katherine’s strongest trait was her willingness to take on difficult problems and solve them.”

Katherine’s Impact at NASA:

Katherine’s math and problem-solving skills made her an invaluable part of countless space missions. Here are just some of Katherine’s accomplishments at NASA: 

  • Enabling Navy rescues for returning astronauts: Katherine worked with engineer Ted Skopinski on key calculations needed to make sure an orbiting space capsule passes over a specified latitude and longitude on the Earth. This allowed the Navy to be at the right place to rescue the astronauts once they splash landed in the ocean
  • Calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic flight: Even though NASA had started using electronic computers to perform calculations, the machines could be temperamental. That’s why astronaut John Glenn personally requested that Katherine recheck the machine’s calculations by hand before his Friendship 7 mission. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” he said.
  • Sending humans to the moon and back: Johnson’s calculations helped sync the Apollo 11 lunar lander with the moon-orbiting command and service module to get the astronauts back to Earth.
  • Rescuing the Apollo 13 crew: After the Apollo 13 spacecraft malfunctioned, forcing the astronauts to abandon their mission, Katherine’s backup procedures and chart enabled the crew’s safe return home.

Play Osmo to Practice Problem-Solving like Katherine Johnson

Reaching for the stars starts with finding the materials to build your own rocketship. Katherine Johnson’s story shows us that, if we possess the curiosity and determination to try for them, our out-of-this-world dreams might not be so far away. Osmo can help your child learn to share Katherine’s love of problem-solving. Our interactive games for kids spark your child’s curiosity and encourage them to find their own answers to important questions. Visit our site to explore award-winning STEM activities for kids, creative games for kids, puzzles for kids, and the best educational games for kids of all ages.