Katherine Johnson - NASA mathematical legend

03 March 2020

KATHERINEJOHNSON-NASA

Katherine Johnson mathematician

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We were saddened to hear of the recent death of NASA’s mathematical legend, Katherine Johnson. It was her calculations that got men to the moon, and safely home again. Indeed, some astronauts refused to fly unless she’d personally looked at the figures. Adam Murphy has been reflecting on her contribution to the space race…

Adam - Katherine Johnson, legendary NASA mathematician, passed away on February 24th at the age of 101. Johnson was renowned for her mathematical abilities. She began work at NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where she was a human computer, reading the black box data from aeroplanes. She spent her time there segregated by both her race, and her gender. Eventually, it was impossible to ignore her mathematical skill and she began assisting with NASA spaceflights, although she still faced pervasive discrimination. She calculated the trajectories rockets needed to be launched at, and even the times at which it was possible to launch them at all. Overcoming the barriers faced by black women in the sciences, Johnson’s work is part of so many iconic moments in NASA’s history. Johnson calculated the trajectory for the rocket, and the launch window for Alan Sheppard’s 1961 mission that made him the first American in space. When electronic computers began to be used at NASA, astronaut John Glenn refused to accept the figures until they had been checked by Johnson, stating “If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go”. Johnson was involved in the first mission that put men on the moon, helping to calculate their launch trajectory. And when Apollo 13 announced that “Houston, we have a problem”, Johnson’s work on backup procedures helped to get them home safely. Johnson’s contributions to the history of space travel went relatively unrecognised for decades, but in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the highest civilian honour the United States gives. And she and her colleagues were also the focus of the 2016 film Hidden Figures. A fitting honour for someone who’s work has impacted so much of modern science.

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