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On Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101. It is assumed that she passed away due to natural causes. Johnson, who is also known as Katherine Goble, was a pioneer in her field and for African-Americans, and for women altogether.
She was born on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her brilliant mind and thirst for knowledge led her to jump several grades in school. By the age of 13, she was taking high school classes at the historically black West Virginia State College.
By the age of 18, she enrolled in college and took to the school’s math curriculum quickly. She graduated with high honors in 1937. Not too long after graduating she was hired as a teacher and taught at a public school for African-American students.
Johnson blazed a trail with two male students when West Virginia State College became an integrated school. The school hand-picked the three to be their first African-American students to be enrolled in the mathematics graduate program.
She left the program after the first session deciding that she wanted to start a family with her husband. This decision had a bit of help due to the fact some of the people at the college were not as welcoming. She returned to teaching public school students.
Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later turned into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Johnson worked as a computer in the West Computing section in the Langley office. Where she was supervised by Dorothy Vaughan, a fellow trailblazer who became the first African-American supervisor in 1949.
The computing section she worked in was made up of a group of African-American women who manually figured out mathematical calculations. The team would analyze data for NASA’s various teams.
Two weeks after starting with the computing group, Johnson left the computers and joined the flight research division. In this new position, she analyzed the data from flight tests.
In 1960, she and Ted Skopinski co-wrote a report called “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.” They outlined the math that is required for orbital spaceflight in which the landing position of the craft is specified. This was the first time a female had been given credit for writing a report.
Her math was vital for various space missions like Freedom 7, Friendship 7, as well as Apollo 11. Her calculations on those missions were used on the Apollo 13 mission when the oxygen tanks exploded causing them to abort the mission. Using her previous work, mission control was able to get the craft safely back to Earth.
She retired after 33 years from NASA in 1986.
She received several awards for her hard work, including the Presidental Medal of Freedom from former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015.
NASA also honored Johnson by naming the new research building after her in September of 2017.
The work she did and others like her was the inspiration behind the movie and book, “Hidden Figures.”
By Sheena Robertson
NBC: NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of inspirations for ‘Hidden Figures’ has died
The New York Times: Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA
Advanced Science News: Pioneers in Science: Katherine Johnson
NASA: Katherine Johnson Biography
Image Courtesy of NASA HQ PHOTO’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License