NASA Math and Space Pioneer Katherine Johnson Dies At 101
Featured Image – NASA/David C. Bowman
Katherine Johnson, often called the “human computer” by her fellow NASA mathematicians, passed away this week at the age of 101. Her work went largely unnoticed for most of her life until the Oscar-nominated 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” that told the stories of Johnson and two other black women who worked at NASA.
Johnson worked in NASA’s “computer pool,” which was made up of mathematicians who produced the data that powered NASA’s first successful space missions. According to CNN, “the group’s success largely hinged on the accomplishments of its black women members.”
“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”
Katherine Johnson, 1918-2020 pic.twitter.com/Vkp0MgfwtH
— NASA STEM Engagement (@NASASTEM) February 24, 2020
Brandishing little more than a pencil and a slide rule, Johnson would devise impeccable calculations that made John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth and allowed Apollo 11 land on the moon. A single error could have had drastic consequences for Glenn and the NASA crew.
A Pioneering Black Woman During a Time of Segregation
Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918. According to her NASA biography, she was handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. In 1952, a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s), the predecessor to NASA.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for.
In the same biography, NASA states that “the computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown, but Glenn was wary of putting his life in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts.”
As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”
Johnson retired from NASA in 1986, but not before helping on numerous Space Shuttle and Landsat satellite missions.
In 2015, President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for her pivotal work in American space travel.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Johnson an “American hero.”
Our @NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten. https://t.co/UPOqo0sLfb pic.twitter.com/AgtxRnA89h
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) February 24, 2020
And in 2017, NASA dedicated a building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
NASA asked Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them with the strength of her mind. Katherine Johnson is an inspiration to all Americans.
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