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Tech Trailblazers Your Life Would Be Different Without: Katherine Johnson

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July 15, 2021
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Katherine Johnson at NASA, 1966. Image credit to GPA Photo Archive

In the late 1950s, a team at NASA was searching for a mathematician to join them to work on the launch to space. The now-famous response from Katherine Johnson was, "Let me do it."

Who Was Katherine Johnson?

Katherine Johnson was a "computer" – a person who did complex calculations for disciplines such as navigation and astronomy. Upon joining the Project Mercury program, she said, "Tell me where you want the man to land, and I'll tell you where to send him up." That is, she was given the splashdown point by the engineers, and would then tell them where to aim the rocket.

If that sounds impressive, it's because it is. Born in 1918, Katherine was a highly intelligent child; by the age of ten, she had begun high school. She received a full academic scholarship to West Virginia State College (currently West Virginia State University) and graduated summa cum laude at the age of eighteen in 1937. Her subjects were math and, perhaps more surprisingly, French.

In 1940, she became one of only three black students selected to join the graduate school in the then-all-white West Virginia University. In 1953, she was hired at NASA (then called NACA – the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at the West Area Computing unit.

Langley Research CenterPublic Domain Image of the Langley Research Center, Aerial View

Katherine calculated the trajectories of some of the US' earliest space exploration expeditions. (Astronaut Alan Shepard of the Freedom 7 mission returned safely from space in large part thanks to her.) But she was most proud of her work on the Apollo moon mission.

In 1960, Katherine co-authored a paper on calculations for putting a spacecraft into orbit. This was the first time a woman in her division received any credit as a writer of a research report. She would go on to author or co-author 26 research reports in her illustrious career.

Katherine had a strong reputation for accuracy. In 1962, John Glenn wanted her to verify the computer's calculations for the mission of orbiting the Earth. "Get the girl to check the numbers," he said. But even if he could not deign to remember her name, history surely will.

At the time, Katherine's groundbreaking contributions were known only within NASA and a community of African Americans she knew in the Hampton Roads area. (Many of them, like her, worked at the Langley research facility.)

However, her renown grew, and Katherine Johnson is now a household name for any computer science or mathematics professional or enthusiast.

Some of her major awards, accolades and recognition:

  • On 24th November 2015, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • In 2015, the NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award.
  • In 2016, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Arthur B.C. Walker II Award.
  • Portrayed by Taraji P. Henson as a main character in the critically acclaimed film Hidden Figures.
  • On 22nd September 2017, NASA opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
  • In 2019, the Congressional Gold Medal.
  • On 6th November 2020, ÑuSat 15 or "Katherine", COSPAR 2020-079G, a satellite named after her, was launched into space.
  • In February 2021, the Cygnus NG-15 spacecraft by Northrop Grumman was named the SS Katherine Johnson in her honor.

Further Resources

Conclusion

Katherine Johnson has rightfully been called a "hero" by NASA Administrator James Bridenstine. Her life was the definition of a blaze of glory.

She passed away on February 24th 2020. Her tale is one of grit, excellence, and defiance of societal barriers. Through her work and legacy, she will continue to inspire many of humanity's most brilliant scientists and mathematicians.

As technology professionals and enthusiasts, BluEnt hopes that this article will work as a small step towards raising awareness about this (hopefully no longer) Hidden Figure.

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