Celebrating Life — The Career of Katherine Johnson

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Katherine Johnson sits at her desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device.” (NASA photograph)
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Katherine Johnson passed away Feb. 24, 2020, after living a life filled with trail-blazing achievements.

“NASA is deeply saddened by the loss of a leader from our pioneering days, and we send our deepest condolences to the family of Katherine Johnson,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, on Johnson’s passing. “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. Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the moon, and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars. Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.”

“At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her,” Bridenstine continued. “We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”

Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of the breakthroughs that have marked Johnson’s long and remarkable life.

Born in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Aug. 26, 1918, by 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

In 1953, after years as a teacher and later as a stay-at-home mom, Johnson began working in the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory.

The NACA had taken the unusual step of hiring women for the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating the results of wind tunnel tests in 1935. In a time before the electronic computers we know today, these women had the job title of “computer.” During World War II, the NACA expanded this effort to include African-American women. The NACA was so pleased with the results that, unlike many organizations, they kept the women computers at work after the war. By 1953 the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department – and Katherine Johnson found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.

So just two weeks into her tenure in the office, she was assigned to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, and Johnson’s temporary position soon became permanent.

In 1957, Johnson provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel, and Katherine, who had worked with many of them since coming to Langley, “came along with the program” as the NACA became NASA later that year. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. 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.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for.

The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral. Fla., and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” — Katherine Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

“If she says they’re good,’” Johnson remembered the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

Following her retirement, Johnson continued to speak to students about her own extraordinary career, and encouraged them to pursue STEM careers.

“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology,” Johnson said in a 2015 interview. “And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”
 
 
 

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