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Mathematician Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician who worked at NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s, passed away at age 101 on February 24th.

Who was she?

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and one of a group of black women who worked at NASA. She was a remarkable figure that participated in ensuring the safety and success of various space missions during the Space Race in the 20th century.

Early Life 

Mrs. Johnson was born in West Virginia on August 26, 1918. From her early years, it was demonstrated that she was very inquisitive and brilliant with numbers. This led her to skip several grades in school and by the age of 13, she was attending high school lessons on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College. By the age of 18, she enrolled in the college itself, and she had taken all the mathematics courses of the college by junior year. Her mentor, W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, taught special classes just for her. She graduated in 1937 with the highest honors and took a job as a teacher in a black public school after realizing the scarcity of jobs available for African American women. 

Going Back to University

In 1940, she was chosen by the President of West Virginia State to be one of the first black graduate students to integrate into the all-white institution of West Virginia University. After the announcement, she left her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. However, she decided to leave the program after the first session to start a family with her husband, James Goble. For more than a decade, she was occupied with motherhood, marriage, and teaching. 

Working at NASA

Katherine Johnson at NASA in 1966.

In 1952, Katherine Goble heard of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s, now known as NASA) Langley laboratory hiring black women as mathematicians. Her family moved there that same year to pursue the opportunity and Katherine began working in 1953 as a mathematician in the Computing section, headed by another African American woman, Dorothy Vaughan. Nevertheless, she soon worked for the Flight Research Division after proving to be an invaluable asset to the division. She was a “computer”, a term used to describe mathematicians working at NASA. During her time in NASA, she experienced racial segregation: even though the company cafeteria had gotten rid of its “Colored Computers” sign, the separate bathrooms for colored people and white people remained.

In the 1960s, with the Soviet Union showing immense progress in space exploration, NASA was pressured to launch an astronaut into space. Katherine, part of the Flight Research Division, was assigned the task of calculating trajectories that would safely land the astronaut and bring him back home safely. She took part in calculating the trajectories of John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962. Even though the trajectories had been calculated with automated computers, Glenn, doubting the accuracy of the mechanical device, asked for Mrs. Johnson to calculate the numbers manually. Mrs. Johnson recalls the astronaut saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s mission was an immense success that marked the turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Mrs. Johnson also took part in calculations for the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969, which turned out to be a success as well. 

Besides, she was among the first women in NASA to be credited as an author or co-author on an agency report, as she took part in writing 26 research reports over the years she worked at Langley. 

She retired in 1986, after working 33 years at NASA.

Legacy

Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

After retirement, she became a public advocate for mathematics education. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who stated, “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.” Later, she became one of the most celebrated black women together with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson at old age; their story inspired the 2016 Hollywood film “Hidden Figures”, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction of the same title. The following year, NASA opened a research facility named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in her honor. 

An autobiography of Mrs. Johnson titled “Reaching for the Moon” was published in 2019.

Katherine Johnson was someone that, despite social and gender restrictions she experienced at the time, succeeded in becoming a pioneering mathematician of the space exploration era. As NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said, “She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”

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