Home Aerospace NASA Math and Space Pioneer Katherine Johnson Dies At 101

NASA Math and Space Pioneer Katherine Johnson Dies At 101

NASA Math and Space Pioneer Katherine Johnson Dies At 101
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Featured Image – NASA/David C. Bowman

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In MilitaryInCyberDefense and In Space News.

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.”

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.

Johnson working as a physicist at NASA in 1966. Courtesy 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.”

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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