Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980. The mathematician's 35-year career at NASA helped put Alan Shepard and John Glenn into orbit around the earth and guided Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon and back. (Image credit: NASA)
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who helped pioneer space travel for 35-years, passed away earlier this morning at the age of 101. From 1953 to 1958, Katherine worked as a 'computer' with a pool of other women who performed calculations at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at the Guidance and Navigation Department. Katherine described their role at the institution as "virtual computers who wore skirts," with their main job being to read data from black boxes of planes and carry out precise mathematical tasks.
At a time in the US when segregation still existed, and women were thought of as better suited for secretarial jobs, Katherine didn't look at her position as breaking barriers, she simply ignored those issues, and asked to be included in meetings because she had done the work, and thus belonged. While she knew federal law mandated workplace segregation, which required her to work, eat, and use separate bathroom facilities from her white peers, she never felt any segregation at NASA because "everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."
The mathematician stated her knowledge of analytic geometry helped her gain male allies and colleagues, who had "forgot to return her to the pool," when projects came to a close, according to an article in the National Visionary Leadership Project. When NACA disbanded in 1958 and was superseded by NASA, Katherine began working as an aerospace technologist at the Spacecraft Controls Branch.
Astronaut John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 capsule for a sub-orbital flight in 1962. Glenn refused to fly unless Johnson's calculations confirmed his computer-plotted trajectory. (Image credit: NASA via Wikipedia)
During her tenure at NASA from 1958 to 1986, she calculated the trajectory for the 1961 spaceflight of Alan Shepard, and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission that saw the first American in space. While NASA was using digital computers at that time, Katherine would plot navigation charts in case of electrical failure. The astronauts trusted her calculations over those produced by those computers, so much so that John Glenn personally asked her to verify the computer's trajectories, or he would not fly the Friendship 7 sub-orbital mission.
Johnson's reputation for accuracy also allowed her to plot Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 capsule splashdown location in the Atlantic Ocean off the Bahamas. Katherine also had a hand in calculating the trajectories to and from the moon for the historic Apollo 11 landing and worked on backup procedures and charts when the Apollo 13 mission was aborted. She was a talented individual who created the one-star observation system that allowed the crew to determine their location in space when their guidance computer went down.
President Obama awarded the Presidential Freedom Medal to Katherine Johnson in 2015 for being a pioneering example for women in the STEM fields. (Image credit: NASA via Wikipedia)
During the final years of her career at NASA, Katherine worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and plans for a mission to Mars. She also co-authored 29 scientific papers, was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999 (where she earned a BS in mathematics and French in 1937) and earned the Presidential Freedom Medal, which was presented to her by President Obama in 2015 for being a pioneering example for women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).
The following year (2016), a new building at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was formally named the "Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in honor of her work at NACA and NASA. Johnson attended the opening event and was awarded the 'Silver Snoopy' award for outstanding contributions to human flight safety and mission success.
A prototype collection of Lego Minifigures to honor the Women of NASA at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (Image credit: National Air and Space Museum)
Katherine was also featured as one of the starring characters, played by Taraji P. Henson, in the film 'Hidden Figures,' which is based on the nonfiction book (of the same name) by Margot Lee Shetterly. I reviewed this film not too long ago. Take a read after this jump.
Among the more unusual awards Johnson received included a prototype Lego Minifigure designed by science writer Maia Weinstock for Women of NASA, however, she declined to have her likeness printed. It's not clear why she turned it down, but I'll hazard a guess and say it was because she felt other African American women worked at NASA just as hard as she did, including mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, engineer Mary Jackson, and hundreds of others that would follow suit.
But that's Katherine's legacy, she never put herself above anyone she worked with, and that selflessness, dedication, and intelligence opened up new doors for women to succeed in becoming engineers, mathematicians, and scientists who are now working to explore our solar system and eventually land the first astronaut on Mars.
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