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Inspiring Thursday: Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

“I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. I never had one. I’m as good as anybody, but not better”

Katherine G. Johnson: The female mathematician that calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions was one of the pioneer black female aerospace workers, and an example of perseverance, opening new doors for women around the world. Katherine G. Johnson is good example of a pioneering contribution to space flight history: She was the first woman to work in NASA’s Research Flight Division. She was the first African American and first woman to have her name placed on a Scientific Report at NASA. Also, Johnson calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American to travel in space. She also calculated the launch window for Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission.

Katherine G. Johnson was born in 26th August 1918, in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. From a very young age Johnson exhibited a remarkable talent for mathematics and skipped several grades in school, beginning high school at only 10 years old. Johnson’s hometown did not offer public schooling for black children past eighth grade, so her family moved 193 kilometres away so that she could attend high school. While in school, her potential was clear to her teachers. One of her professors, William Schieffelin Claytor, encouraged Johnson to become a research mathematician and created a geometry class just for her. After teaching for a few years, Johnson was accepted on the West Virginia University’s graduate math program, and in 1939, she became the first black woman to attend the University.

After graduate school and working as a public-school teacher, she was hired in 1953 by NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton. She spent the following years analysing data from flight tests and worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence, until her retirement as an aerospace technologist in 1986. Johnson’s accomplishments at NASA were highlighted in the bestselling book “Hidden Figures,” and on the Oscar winning movie with the same name.

In recognition of her life and contributions as a role model, a scholar, an educator, and her pioneering career as a research mathematician with NASA in space travel, Johnson has received many awards and recognitions. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour. In 2016, the NASA Langley facility renamed a building in her honour: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. In the same year, BBC listed her as one of the 100 most influential women worldwide. On the 18th 2019, the National Association of Mathematicians awarded Katherine G. Johnson with the NAM’s Centenarian Award.

Katherine G. Johnson stands among NASA’s most inspirational figures. She died on the 24th February, 2020 with 101 years old. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced her death and promised that her legacy would be remembered. “At NASA, we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her, “We will continue building on her legacy.”


Written by WAVE intern: Mariana Cunha

Sources:

Houston, Johnny. “The Life and Pioneering Contributions of an African American Centenarian: Mathematician Katherine G. Johnson,” Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 66, No. 3 (March 2019)

“Katherine Johnson biography.” NASA. Available at: www.nasa.gov

Chelsea Gohd, “Katherine Johnson, trailblazing NASA mathematician, celebrates 100 trips around the Sun”. Available at: www.space.com