Katherine Johnson was instrumental in make the lunar landing mission a success through her work with NASA as a mathematician. She died on Feb. 24, 2020, at the age of 101. It is very fitting to me that we honor her, not only because of the loss of a great mathematician, but also for her contributions to society in general. As Black History month came to a close over the weekend, it was another reminder of her contributions and those of others.
Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. in 1918. Her “intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers” allowed her to skip several grade levels in school and she attended high-school on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College. In 1937, she graduated with the highest honors and degrees in mathematics and French. She was among the first three students of color who were offered admission to West Virginia University’s graduate program in 1939; she never completed her graduate studies but went on to become a wife and mother.
In 1952, after her children were grown, she and her husband moved to Newport News, Va., where she pursued a position in the all-black West Area Computing section at NASA. Last July the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, W.Va., was renamed in her honor as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. I find it interesting that very facility is where I began my career in computing.
Johnson not only drove our nation’s space program to new frontiers, but she blazed the trail for women or color to enter very scientific fields that are dominated by men. It is unfortunate that Johnson, as well as the women who worked alongside her, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to name a couple, were relatively unknown until the release of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” in 2016. Jackson and Vaughan did not live long enough to see the well-deserved film honoring their work at NASA as Jackson died in 2005 and Vaughan in 2008.
Johnson stated that her greatest contribution to space exploration was “the calculations that helped synchronize Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module.” Her work was instrumental in putting men on the moon in 1969. More accurately, she helped get men back safely from the moon, as docking with the Command and Service module was required for a safe flight back home.
Ted Skopinski, along with other male lead scientists at NASA, would have normally taken full credit for the work of the “computers,” but Skopinski shared the credit with Johnson, making her the first female to receive credit as an author on a research report detailing the equations describing an orbital space flight.
Her first major work in orbital space flight was running the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s 1961 mission Freedom 7, the first American manned spaceflight. She also contributed to John Glenn’s first American orbital space flight. In 1962 space flight trajectory tacking required the construction of a “worldwide communications network” linking computers around the world back to NASA mission control in Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda.
Electronic computers were new to the scene and there was not much trust in their accuracy or reliability, so in the case of Glenn’s space flight, he refused to fly until Johnson ran the calculations by hand. Throughout her career at NASA, Johnson authored or co-authored 25 research reports contributing to NASA programs as recent as the Space Shuttle and Earth Resource Satellites. She retired from NASA after more than three decades of work in 1986.