Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson Dies Aged 101

Born in 1918 in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson spent 33 years at NASA Langley Research Center, making critical technical contributions to historic spaceflights. NASA

Katy Pallister 24 Feb 2020, 18:11

Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who calculated the flight path for the first manned mission to the moon, has died at the age of 101. A heroine around the world, she broke down racial and social barriers across the space program, paving the way for future generations.

Excelling in school, she enrolled at West Virginia State College when she was only 15 years old. After, she was a teacher for several years before she was handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools.

A family soon followed and she returned to her role as a teacher until she became aware of openings at the West Area Computing section of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory in the early 1950s. Here began her extraordinary 33-year career in orbital mathematics, working on a plethora of major NASA missions.

Pictured here in 1980, Katherine Johnson's time at NASA spanned over three decades. NASA

Some of the defining moments in her early years at NASA have been shared in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures and depicted in the 2016 film of the same name, where she was played by Taraji P Henson. Johnson successfully calculated the launch window for the 1961 manned Mercury mission, America’s first human spaceflight, establishing herself as a leader in calculating trajectory.

A year later, she once again showcased her incredible mathematical ability when working on John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission. Mistrustful of the new worldwide IBM communications network for carrying out his trajectory analysis, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” – Johnson – to carry out the same calculations by hand. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”

Throughout the rest of her career, Johnson went on to calculate the flight trajectories for the 1969 Apollo 11 landing, authored or co-authored 26 scientific papers, helped line up Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module, and won NASA’s Langley Research Center Special Achievement award five times.

In 1986, Johnson retired from NASA, but that was not the end of her incredible achievements, nor her impact on women and minorities in STEM. Notably, she received in 2015 the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, America’s highest civilian honor.

At a Hidden Figures Premiere and Award Ceremony in 2016, Johnson along with colleagues from the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, including Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, received a group achievement award. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

A statement by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine paid respect to Katherine Johnson: “Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space... At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her.”

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