Katherine Johnson, ‘American hero’ and NASA pioneer, dies at 101

The 2016 Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures brought to light Johnson’s 33-year career as a NASA mathematician.

Katherine Johnson Presidential Medal of Freedom
US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Katherine Johnson, the black woman whose mathematical genius took her from a behind-the-scenes job in a segregated NASA to a key role in sending humans to the moon, died on Monday at the age of 101, the space agency said.

“She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

Johnson’s 33-year career with NASA was portrayed in the book Hidden Figures, which then went on to become an Oscar-nominated film. Johnson was also awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by former United States President Barack Obama in 2015.

“She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country,” then NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said when Johnson was presented with the honour.

Johnson worked on the Mercury and Apollo missions, including the first moon landing in 1969, and the early years of the space shuttle programme. Astronaut John Glenn thought so much of her that he insisted Johnson be consulted before his historic earth-orbiting flight in 1962. “Get the girl to check the numbers,” he said.

“He knew I had done [the calculations] before for him and they trusted my work,” Johnson told the Washington Post in 2017.

Katherine Johnson Academy Awards

During the space race between the US and the former Soviet Union, Johnson and her co-workers ran the numbers for unmanned rocket launches, test flights and aeroplane safety studies using pencils, slide rules and mechanical calculating machines.

But they did their work in facilities separate from white workers and were required to use separate restrooms and dining facilities.

“She didn’t close her eyes to the racism that existed,” Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in Hidden Figures. “She knew just as well as any other black person the tax levied upon them because of their color. But she didn’t feel it in the same way. She wished it away, willed it out of existence inasmuch as her daily life was concerned.”

Johnson grew up in West Virginia at a time when educational opportunities for black people were limited because of segregation. But her mother, a former teacher, and her father, a farmer and handyman, stressed education and moved the family 120 miles to a town that had a high school for black children.

Johnson’s math skills got her into West Virginia State College at age 15. She zipped through the school’s math program, earning degrees in math and French before becoming one of the first black students in the graduate school at West Virginia University in 1938. After teaching for seven years, Johnson went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a forerunner of NASA, in 1953.

Johnson found herself in a realm made up almost exclusively of white men when she was chosen to be part of the team supporting the 1961 mission that made Alan Shepard the first American in space. She would go on to calculate crucial rocket trajectories, orbital paths and launch windows.

Johnson made the transition to the computer era and worked on the shuttle programme while writing or co-writing 26 research reports before retiring in 1986, NASA said.

Johnson and her first husband, James Goble, who died in 1956, had three daughters. She married Lieutenant Colonel James Johnson in 1959.

Source: Reuters