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Katherine Johnson: In Commemoration of the Mathematician and Computer Scientist Responsible for the first U.S. Moon Landing

This profile on Katherine Johnson, Mathematician and computer scientist responsible for the NASA flight path of the first U.S. moon landing, is the thirteenth post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post is in honor of Johnson’s contributions to society in commemoration of her life. Johnson passed away today at the age of 101. 

Katherine Johnson showed an aptitude and interest in mathematics from a young age, prompting her mother, a teacher, and her father, a farmer and janitor, to move the family so that Johnson and her siblings could attend school1. According to Popular Science, Johnson was born on Women’s Equality Day, a foreshadowing of major accomplishments, not only for women, but also for women of color2. Johnson’s intellect carried her through school until she graduated high school at the age of 14 before moving on to West Virginia State College (now known as West Virginia State University) to earn a B.S. in French and Mathematics with honors in 19321,2. Johnson later enrolled in West Virginia State College’s graduate program, as one of the first three African-Americans selected to desegregate the institution after the state decided to move toward the integration of graduate school integration in 1939, but ultimately did not finish the degree to focus on her family3.

After marrying and having children, Johnson used her new degree and enhanced knowledge to begin teaching in primary and secondary schools in her home state of Virginia. Johnson moved the Langley Research Center (LaRC) to work as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the predecessor for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, more commonly known now as NASA3. Johnson applied and was accepted into the NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory under their initiative to hire African-American mathematicians with teaching experience3. Johnson’s intelligence and undeniable knowledge of mathematics, landed her a place on a male only team, which she quickly won over through her valuable contributions1. Only two weeks into her position with the aforementioned laboratory, Johnson was reassigned to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division by a superior who recognized her promise3

After NACA officially became NASA in 1958, Johnson moved from the Flight Mechanics Branch to the Spacecraft Controls Branch where she was tasked with calculating the flight path for the first U.S. astronaut’s journey into space1. Once Johnson proved her calculations correct and her foresight into the newly encountered factors of space travel, she was responsible for checking the calculations for the firs U.S. astronaut’s orbit around the moon piloted by John Glenn1

Johnson reported to NASA that “Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computers, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,” she remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go”’3

Johnson was also a part of the critical team responsible for Neil Armstrong’s 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, as depicted in the box-office hit movie “Hidden Figures,” as well as the Apollo 13 mission in addition to other important space odyssey4

“Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space,” NASA wrote3.

During her 33 year tenure at NASA, Johnson was part of the team that wrote the first textbook about space mission mathematics and became a critically important and respected member of the NASA team2.

Throughout her career, Johnson was credited with authoring or co-authoring 13 research reports, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, was included in the list of “BBC 100 Women”,  and NASA dedicated a new Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center3. In addition to these recognitions, Dr. Johnson received numerous awards including “the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Arthur B.C. Walker II Award (2016); a NASA Silver Snoopy award (2016); an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Old Dominion University (2010); an Honorary Doctor of Science by the Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland (2010); the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year (1999); and an Honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale (1998)”3.

Today, Johnson passed away at the age of 101. Despite her passing, Johnson’s life will live on for her fearlessness, intellect, and will to pursue personal interests and curiosity.

References:

  1. The History Makers. (2020). Katherine G. Johnson. Retrieved from https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/katherine-g-johnson-42.
  2. Popular Science. (2020, February 24). Katherine Johnson, whose calculations enabled the first moonwalk, dies at 101. Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/story/space/katherine-johnson-legacy-nasa/.
  3. NASA. (2017, May 25). Katherine G. Johnson. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/feature/katherine-g-johnson.
  4. Rocket-Women. (2016, August 16). New Movie highlights Pivotal Role of NASA Women to Achieve Moon Landing.  Retrieved from  https://rocket-women.com/tag/katherine-johnson/