NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson, 'Hidden Figures' Hero, Dies at 101

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

NASA mathematician and subject of the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” Katherine G. Johnson passed away today at age 101.

Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia to a family dedicated to her education—her father moved his family to Institute, West Virginia so she could continue her studies past eighth grade. She attended West Virginia State College and graduated with honours in 1937 at 18 years old.

Johnson went onto work as a teacher and homemaker, but in 1953, she joined the Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, to work as a “computer” to crunch numbers. NACA had hired women computers since 1935 and began hiring African American women during World War II.

In her role, Johnson calculated the complex trajectories of rockets launching into orbit, including the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s 1961 trip, the first time an American went to space.

“Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘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.’ That was my forte,” she said, according to a NASA release.

As technology advanced and the flights became more complicated, NASA started to rely on mechanical computers to calculate these trajectories. Johnson would check the results of these computers and even operate the computers herself; she verified the computer results that calculated the orbit for John Glenn’s famous Friendship 7 mission, the first time an American went into orbit, since Glenn wouldn’t trust the numbers unless Johnson had run them. And in 1969, she watched as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, a trip reliant in part on her work. Johnson continued working at Langley until 1986, on the Space Shuttle Program and missions to Mars. Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers during her career.

But many of Johnson’s contributions went mostly unnoticed by the general public until recently. Former President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her work, and many people learned about her when Margot Lee Shetterly published her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, followed by the blockbuster film adaption. In 2016, the NASA Langley Research Center renamed its computing center the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Despite her work as a pioneer for black women in STEM, hurdles still remain. Black physicists are still underrepresented in the field—the percentage of black students receiving bachelor’s degrees in physics hasn’t increased since 2006. Black students often face an unsupportive environment and financial challenges at universities, while physics departments at historically black colleges and universities have seen an overall decline in funding.

“Katherine Johnson was a hero who had to wait a lifetime to be recognised for her barrier-breaking contributions to space science and astronomy,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor in physics at the University of New Hampshire, told Gizmodo. “I hope that the scientific community takes a lesson from the way her work was hidden and starts aggressively looking for all of the ways black women are excluded and pushed out. Now is a time to recall her contributions, yes, but it is also a time to evaluate the legacy she represents and figure out what scientists will do to fulfill the dreams of black women who like to calculate and who love the night sky. Despite the doors she pushed open, so many of us are still struggling to get through them.”

Hopefully one day, any student interested in space research will be able to pursue their passion without undue barriers.

Johnson said in 2008: “I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don’t want to go to work.”

Photo: NASA/Sean Smith