Rest in Power: Remembering Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine G. Johnson

The word prototype is defined as “a first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied”, and NASA Mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, who passed away today after making 101 rotations around the sun, was definitely that. But luckily the mold was not broken. In fact, Johnson helped draft the blueprints.

Thanks to Katherine, and her accomplishments, Black people found a respectable place in the intellectual, scientific, and experimental world of space travel and beyond.  Katherine was a computer before a computer was a computer. Without her knowledge and know how, the US may not have been able to calculate astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around Earth or the moon landing. Keep in mind that the US was in a space race with Russia meaning time was of the essence and the fate of the American space program relied on the brain power of a Black woman from West Virginia, along with many other Black women who worked for NASA during that time. And her accomplishments may have gone unnoticed if not for the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, documenting the role of Black women during the most crucial time for NASA.

Joining NASA in 1953, Katherine Goble Johnson paved the way for Black women to work, be respected, and be taken seriously in the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), shattering racial and social barriers, one calculation at a time. Johnson worked at NASA for 33 years. She retired in 1986.

We are forever indebted for the contributions she has made to the Black community, this country, the world, and beyond. When we say ‘reach for the stars’ we are talking about Katherine G. Johnson energy….the prototype.

A little more about Katherine G. Johnson…

  1. Katherine graduated High School at 14 and graduated college at 18.

    Katherine G. Johnson attended West Virginia State in 1939 at the age of 14. She was the first Black woman to attend. There were two other Black students (men) who attended the newly integrated school. It was here that Johnson met math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third Black person to earn a PhD in mathematics. Claytor pushed Johnson to be a research mathematician, making sure she took every math class possible as well as creating an analytical geometry of space class just for her.

  2. Katherine worked as a teacher prior to working for NASA.

    After graduating college, Johnson attended grad school and began teaching. She eventually left grad school and teaching to start a family. She began teaching at a public school. Fifteen years later, Johnson would take her position at NASA, formerly the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), after hiring for ‘human computers’ was opened to Black women due to a workers shortage resulting from World War II

  3. Johnson’s first NACA assignment resulted in groundbreaking research related to air safety.

    A small propeller plane seeming fell out of the sky without any warning. Johnson thoroughly analyzed the data recorded by the plane’s black box, providing her finding to the engineers who discovered that the flight path of a larger plane can disturb the air around it for up to a half hour after it passes through, acting as a sort of “trip wire” for a smaller plane.

  4. Johnson stood out at NASA because she was not afraid to ask questions

    “She was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings; she asked if there were a law against it. The answer, of course, was no, and so Johnson began to attend briefings. NACA was just beginning its work on space. Space itself may be perceived as a series of plane surfaces, and as Johnson became known for her training in geometry, she began to work with the team more and more. Eventually, she became known as a leader, and the men increasingly relied on her.”

  5. Johnson literally wrote the book on space travel.

    In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position, a report laying out the equations describing an orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the spacecraft is specified. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.”

  6. Johnson calculated the trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight

    Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on astronaut Alan B. Shepard’s Freedom 7 suborbital mission. The purpose of this mission was “to determine man’s capabilities in a space environment and in those environments to which he will be subject upon going into and returning from space.” I guess we can say it was a success. Thanks, Katherine!

  7. Astronaut John Glenn made three orbits around earth in 1962, thanks to the calculations by Johnson.

    “The orbital equations used to choreograph his mission had been uploaded to a computer, but this being the early 1960s, electronic calculators still weren’t a totally reliable method for handling sophisticated equations. Before climbing into the cockpit, Glenn requested that Johnson check the computer’s work by redoing all the math by hand, saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” The flight went off without a hitch.”

  8. Johnson played a significant role in the calculations involved for the Apollo Moon Landing Program.

    Johnson worked with NASA’s team of engineers to pinpoint the time and location of departure that would put astronauts on track for the moon.

  9. Katherine Johnson was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc.

    In fact, all three ladies featured in Hidden Figures, Mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, the first greek-letter sorority found for and by Black college-educated women.

  10. Johnson has both a Barbie and Lego set in her likeness.

    In 2018, Mattel announced it was rolling out a Katherine Johnson Barbie, part of its “Inspiring Women” line that paid tribute to historical role models. This was after Lego announce in 2017 that it was including Johnson in its new line honoring the women at NASA.

  11. NASA named a research center after Johnson.

    A new 40,000 square-foot building at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was officially named The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. The formal dedication took place on the 55th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s rocket launch, which Johnson of course helped to achieve.

  12. President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015

    “Johnson received recognition on a national scale. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The medal is the highest honor a civilian can receive.”

  13. Johnson received her doctorate, 75 years after she dropped out of graduate school.

    “Johnson received an honorary doctorate degree from West Virginia University. According to the institution, Johnson earned the honor by “attaining national and international preeminence in the field of astrophysics and providing distinguished leadership and service in her field.”

  14. Johnson was presented the flag that was flown on the 4th flight of Columbia Space Shuttle mission.

    It reads: Presented to Katherine G. Johnson. This flag was carried aboard the fourth flight of Columbia, in recognition of your personal contribution towards making SPACE AVAILABLE. Your dedication and teamwork allowed STS-4 to mark both the successful completion of OFT and the beginning the beginning of another era in space.

Rest in power, Queen.