“Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

President Obama

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician who calculated and analyzed the flight paths of many spacecraft during her more than three decades with the U.S. space program. Her work helped send astronauts to the Moon. She calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth. During her 33-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.

Katherine Johnson (2008). Photo credits: NASA
Katherine Johnson (2008). Photo credits: NASA

Her Important contributions

From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. She plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers; Glenn had asked for her specifically and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations. Her work also helped to ensure that Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury capsule would be found quickly after landing, using the accurate trajectory that had been established.

She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on the Apollo 13 Moon mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew’s return to Earth, creating a one-star observation system that would allow astronauts to determine their location with accuracy.

Johnson working as a "computer" at NASA in 1966
Johnson working as a “computer” at NASA in 1966

Awards and Honors

Her social influence as a pioneer in space science and computing is demonstrated by the honors she received and her status as a role model for a life in science. Johnson was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans so honored on November 24, 2015.

Johnson also received a Silver Snoopy award; often called the astronaut’s award, NASA stated it is given to those “who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success”. NASA renamed the Independent Verification and Validation Facility, in Fairmont, West Virginia, to the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility on February 22, 2019.

Johnson was included on the BBC’s list of 100 Women of influence worldwide in 2016. In a 2016 video NASA stated, “Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps on the country’s journey into space.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to Johnson in 2015.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to Johnson in 2015.

Famous quotes of Katherine Johnson

“Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.”

“Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!”

“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. And there will always, always be mathematics.”

“Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.”

Everything was so new – the whole idea of going into space was new and daring. There were no textbooks, so we had to write them.

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