Lydia Pike reflects on the life and legacy of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died aged 101
Fly me to the moon, NASA said. So she did.
In the 1960s the focus of the US space division was consumed by the race to the moon, so armed with little more than a pencil, a slide rule and her brain, Katherine Johnson made that dream a reality. Johnson, who recently died at the age of 101, dedicated over 30 years of her life to working at NASA, where she calculated equations that would enable the country’s most prolific missions to go ahead, also becoming the first woman to be credited as an academic author by the space agency’s Flight Research Division. In a statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine paid homage to Johnson, who “helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of colour.”
Dedicated over 30 years of her life to working at NASA
Born in August 1918, Johnson displayed extraordinary academic potential from a young age and was taking classes at West Virginia State College by the time she was 13 years old. Mentored by the third African-American to achieve a PhD in mathematics, Johnson graduated with degrees in mathematics and French at the age of 18. She briefly studied for a master’s degree in mathematics at West Virginia University after being chosen to be one of the first black students there, but soon left to focus on starting a family. Even with her intellect, after raising three daughters, the heavy discrimination of the time left her unable to find a job in academia, so she became a school teacher.
Johnson’s career at NASA didn’t begin until 1953, after she heard from a relative that the Langley Research Centre in Virginia was hiring black women for their blacks-only computing wing. Even in this segregated and discriminatory environment, Johnson was known for her mathematical abilities. “Tell me where you want the man to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up”. Johnson calculated the trajectories and navigational charts for pioneering American spaceflights, including the first human spaceflight in 1961, first human orbit in 1962, and the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. Astronaut John Glenn famously refused to fly unless Johnson herself manually verified the calculations now made by computers. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go”.
Even in this segregated and discriminatory environment, Johnson was known for her mathematical abilities
Despite the monumental part they played in the successes of the US space programme, only recently have the contributions made by Johnson and her fellow African-American colleagues come to light. However, in 2015, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a year later, her life made it to the big screen in the 2016 hit film, Hidden Figures, showcasing the NASA careers of black female mathematicians during the Space Race.