Spaceflight pioneer Katherine Johnson passes

Katherine G. Johnson
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Her contributions to the U.S. space program paved the way for other women and African Americans.

NASA mathematician, trailblazer in the quest for racial equality, contributor to the United States’ first triumphs in human spaceflight, and champion of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, Katherine G. Johnson passed Feb 24, 2020, at the age of 101.

Johnson stands among NASA’s most inspirational figures. Born Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, she graduated from West Virginia State College with highest honors in 1937. After attending graduate school and working as a public-school teacher, she was hired in 1953 by the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, now known as NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 Mercury mission, Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. Astronauts were wary of finicky electronic computers programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule from liftoff to splashdown. Glenn asked Johnson to run the same numbers programmed into the computers by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Johnson remembers Glenn saying.

Johnson later performed calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS, later renamed Landsat) and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley.

Johnson’s accomplishments were highlighted in the bestselling book “Hidden Figures,” and the movie of the same name.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after her passing, “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 human quest to explore space. 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. Her Presidential Medal of Freedom was a well-deserved recognition.”

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.