Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Katherine Johnson, a pioneering black mathematician and one of NASA Langley’s ‘Hidden Figures,’ has died

Katherine Johnson. (WYDaily/Courtesy of NASA)
Katherine Johnson. (WYDaily/Courtesy of NASA)

NASA said pioneering black mathematician Katherine Johnson has died.

She worked on NASA’s early space missions and was portrayed in the film “Hidden Figures,” about black female aerospace workers.

In a Monday morning tweet, the space agency said it celebrates her 101 years of life and her legacy of excellence and breaking down racial and social barriers. Johnson was one of the so-called “computers” who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand during NASA’s early years.

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, near the Virginia border. The small town had no schools for blacks beyond the eighth grade, she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1997.

Until 1958, Johnson, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson worked in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Johnson focused on airplanes and other research at first. But her work at NASA’s Langley Research Center eventually shifted to Project Mercury, the nation’s first human space program.

In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space. The next year, she manually verified the calculations of a nascent NASA computer, an IBM 7090, which plotted John Glenn’s orbits around the planet.

The lives and careers of the four were featured in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. That book was adapted into the 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.

“Katherine organized herself immediately at her desk, growing phone-book-thick stacks of data sheets a number at a time, blocking out everything except the labyrinth of trajectory equations,” Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in her book.

Johnson considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration. Her calculations helped the lunar lander rendezvous with the orbiting command service module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986.

In 2017, Johnson was brought on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony to thunderous applause. Jackson and Vaughan had died in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

President Donald Trump last November signed bipartisan legislation cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine to award four the four scientists the Congressional Gold Medal for their work at NASA Langley in Hampton.

The award distinguished Johnson, Darden, Vaughan and Jackson, posthumously awarding the medal to the latter two, according to the senators’ offices.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act honored:

  • Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division.
  • Dorothy Vaughan, who led the West Area Computing unit for nine years as the first African American supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division.
  • Mary Jackson, who petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School in order to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.
  • Christine Darden, who became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley.

“Katherine Johnson helped realize one of humankind’s oldest dreams—to reach the stars. Hidden no longer, she will be remembered for her contributions to math and science and forever stand as a role model for those whose talents are not fully recognized because of prejudice,” Kaine said in a statement emailed from his office. “I am deeply saddened to hear of her passing, and my condolences go out to her family, my fellow Virginians, the NASA community, and everyone else who held her as a hero.”

John Mangalonzohttp://wydaily.com
John Mangalonzo (john@localdailymedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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