Dear Commons Community,
Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician whose story was told in the book and movie Hidden Figures died yesterday. She was 101.
Johnson, a black woman from West Virginia, was hired at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1953 as part of the so-called Computer Pool, a group of people, mostly women, who worked as data processors before computers were invented.
Among her projects were Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight, but her most well known work was on John Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission, when he ordered engineers to “get the girl” to re-run the equations calculated by the computer for his trajectory.
“If she says they’re good,” Glenn said, “then I’m ready to go.”
in 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
“Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honor her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers,” NASA tweeted yesterday.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called Johnson an “American hero” and said her “pioneering legacy will never be forgotten.”
“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 quest to explore space,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “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.
Johnson’s barrier-breaking work was immortalized in “Hidden Figures,” written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The 2016 Oscar-nominated movie, based on Shetterly’s book, starred Taraji P. Henson as Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.
Here is an excerpt from her obituary courtesy of the Chicago Sun Times.
“Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, near the Virginia border. The small town had no schools for blacks beyond the eighth grade, she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1997.
Each September, her father drove Johnson and her siblings to Institute, West Virginia, for high school and college on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College.
Johnson taught at black public schools before becoming one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools in 1939.
She left after the first session to start a family with her first husband, James Goble, and returned to teaching when her three daughters grew older. In 1953, she started working at the all-black West Area Computing unit at what was then called Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton.
Johnson’s first husband died in 1956. She married James A. Johnson in 1959.
Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Looking back, she said she had little time to worry about being treated unequally.
“My dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better,’” Johnson told NASA in 2008. “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
May she rest in peace!