The mathematician Katherine Johnson has died at the age of 101. Her calculations were vital many NASA space missions. She was one of the "Hidden Figures" brought into the spotlight by the 2016 book and film.
Hidden Figures told the true story of a team of female mathematicians who worked in NASA during the early days of the Space Race. The women were known as computers, because in those days electronic computers were huge, unwieldy and unreliable. The women's job was to "compute" essential calculations for the aeronautical engineers.
Johnson calculated the trajectories of the first American manned flight into space, by Alan Shephard in 1961, and of John Glenn's first orbital flight the following year. The astronauts were wary of risking their lives based on machine calculations. Katherine Johnson remembered that John Glenn asserting, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918, and was a child mathematical prodigy, fascinated by numbers from a young age. Despite limited educational opportunities for African Americans, she graduated from high school at just 14 and from university at 18. She was then handpicked for one of just three places when West Virginia decided to desegregate its graduate-school programmes in 1939.
However, she encountered segregation again working at NASA's Langley Research Center. As portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film the women computers were doubly discriminated against, for their ethnicity and their gender. They worked in segregated teams, with separate canteen and toilet facilities, and struggled to be allowed to study, gain promotion or even attend meetings.
However, things did improve in the 33 years Johnson spent there, working on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes. Langley now boasts a building named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in 2017.
In 2015, Johnson was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The country’s first African-American President summed up her achievements in what would make an excellent epitaph, "In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars."
20th Century Fox
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