Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who worked on NASA’s early space missions, died yesterday. The film Hidden Figures, about pioneering black female aerospace workers, portrays her inspiring story. The 101-year-old Johnson leaves behind a legacy of excellence and breaking down racial and social barriers.
Johnson (August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from West Virginia State College. In 1953, she became one of NASA’s so-called “computers” (as in, people who compute math problems). She spent her early career developing air safety standards.
But when NASA entered the space race, the agency needed someone to calculate orbits and flight paths. “Let me do it,” Johnson told her bosses. Soon she was calculating rocket trajectories and Earth orbits—all by hand. (For more information, see “NASA Facility Honors Katherine Johnson.”)
Johnson worked on Project Mercury, the nation’s first human space program.
Until 1958, she and other black women worked in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
“Our office computed all the [rocket] trajectories,” Johnson told a reporter in 2012. “You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.”
In 1961, Johnson worked on the first mission to carry an American into space. The next year, a new room-sized IBM 7090 plotted John Glenn’s orbits around the planet.
According to NASA, Glenn knew about Johnson’s experience with trajectory (flight path) analysis. During a preflight check, the astronaut asked Johnson to run the numbers by hand. Johnson remembers Glenn saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Four years ago, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Johnson’s legacy goes far beyond Earth—literally. As NASA historian Bill Barry says, “If we go back to the Moon or to Mars, we’ll be using her math.”
(In this November 24, 2015, photo, baseball great Willie Mays, right, looks on as President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)