When Johnson began at the space agency in June 1953, she and her black co-workers had to sit apart from the white women who did the same tasks. Their lunch table was marked with a sign: “Colored Computers.”
Johnson didn’t let this hold her back. She asked thoughtful questions about the work she was doing. Her team noticed her curiosity and mathematical ability. Less than two weeks after she started, Johnson joined a group of engineers exploring the possibility of space flight.
By 1958, the space agency was developing spacecraft that could launch humans into space. Each launch required precise geometric coordinates for where the spacecraft should take off, where it should fly, and where it should land. Johnson worked on the calculations for these missions.
In 1962, John Glenn was preparing to launch into space and orbit Earth. An early electronic computer made the mission calculations. But Glenn didn’t trust it. He wanted Johnson to do the math herself.
Johnson calculated every minute of the flight path that would circle Earth three times. Her numbers were correct, and Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet.