Farewell to Katherine Johnson, NASA’s brilliant mathematician

Katherine Johnson was one of the many women who performed trajectory calculations of NASA’s first space flights. Thanks to her brilliant mind, she got many white men to listen to her, a woman of colour, in the hostile environment of racial discrimination that was experienced in America in the 1960s.

Katherine Johnson

In 2016, Theodore Melfi’s film Hidden Figures revealed to the general public the lives of three African-American scientists who made great contributions to space exploration, during a time period (1960s) and location (southern United States) where coloured women didn’t have it easy to stand out in a field reserved for white men.

Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020) was one of those hidden figures. Interestingly enough, Johnson was born on August 26, which currently coincides with the celebration of Women’s Equality Day in America, in honour of the date on which the female vote was recognized in this country, in 1920. However, Johnson was never considered different. "I didn’t have time for that," she once explained in an interview. “My father taught us that we were as good as anyone else in the city, but that we were no better. I have not and never have had a feeling of inferiority, I never had it. I am as good as anyone, but I am not better,” explained this extraordinary woman.

Although she began by dedicating herself to teaching, Katherine Johnson’s real career path was waiting at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a federal agency that would be the beginning of today’s NASA. The Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, hired African-American women to work as mathematicians every year, and during the 1950s many scientists verified, from the shadows, the calculations needed by the agency’s engineers when the space race was in full speed. Johnson landed at the Langley Research Center in the summer of 1953, in a special area for people of colour, with bathrooms and dining rooms separated from the rest.

Unknown territory

Katherine Johnson always expressed her luck to be a pioneer and to experience first-hand the beginnings of a new adventure, completely unknown territory. “We had to write our own textbook, there was nothing written about space,” she commented once in an interview. “We had to resort to geometry and solve problems from scratch. It was only the beginning and I was one of those lucky people who got to experience it from up close.”

Johnson’s work was critical to the flight of astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to be sent into space and the second in the world, after Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Katherine Johnson was, of course, responsible for calculating Shepard’s trajectory. “The initial trajectory was a parabola, and it was very easy to predict where the capsule would be at any given moment,” said the scientist. “The problem was getting it to land at a certain location, and it was essential to calculate at what exact time to take off. That’s what I told them: Let me do it. Tell me when and where you want the capsule to land, and I’ll tell you when to take off’,” recalled the brilliant mathematician.

Then the computers came

Although it may seem like a lie, but the first space flights were made by conducting all necessary calculations written on paper. The computer age was beginning, and computers were huge and monstrous machines that occupied entire rooms, with extremely complex operations and whose handling required a high specialization.

Astronauts and engineers themselves had little confidence in these devices, which could make calculations much more complicated and faster than the human mind. One of the most remembered anecdotes of Katherine Johnson’s life refers to the time when astronaut John Glenn, the third American to travel into space, stated that he would not fly until the girl reviewed all of the trajectory calculations.

Johnson also began to use computers for her calculations, and continued to work at NASA until 1986, when she retired after 33 years of service. With the merit of having contributed decisively to the first milestones in the history of space exploration, including the calculation of the trajectory of Apollo 11 on its way to the Moon in 1969.

Katherine Johnson received numerous lifetime awards: at the age of 97, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama, and in 2017, NASA named one of its buildings Katherine G. Johnson’s Computer Research Center. In addition to continuing to be linked to the US agency until the end of her days, the scientist also became very involved in the education and promotion of scientific vocations and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers amongst girls and young adults. Her extraordinary career and the challenges she faced as a woman and an African-American are certainly inspiring.

Johnson died on the morning of 24 February 2020 at the age of 101. NASA remembered this brilliant figure with an emotional tweet: “Tonight, we count the stars and remember a pioneer. A figure no longer hidden, Katherine Johnson helped take us into a new era of space exploration, and for that we are eternally grateful. Join us in reflecting on her powerful legacies.”

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