NASA mathematician and pioneer Katherine Johnson dies at 101

Jim Bridenstine/Twitter

Dan Broadbent

NASA mathematician and pioneer Katherine Johnson has passed away. She was 101 years old.

This morning, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Twitter that famed NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson passed away. She was 101 years old.

"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," Bridenstine said in a statement. He went on to say that Johnson is "an American hero."

Johnson was also played by actress Taraji P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures.

Johnson was the first woman of color to attend an integrated graduate school in West Virginia, but left after one session to start a family with her husband. She returned to teaching, but in 1953 took a job where she analyzed data as part of a four-year investigation into a plane crash caused by wake turbulence.

Johnson did trajectory analysis for NASA's first crewed spaceflight, Freedom 7 (crewed by Alan Shepard), in 1961.

In 1962, Johnson assisted with John Glenn's launch of Friendship 7. Johnson helped program the flight computers to control the spacecraft's trajectory from liftoff to splashdown in the ocean. During pre-flight checks, Glenn asked his engineers to “get the girl” (referring to Johnson), to double check the numbers that had been programmed into the computers... by hand. Johnson did this using her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

Katherine Johnson, at her desk, with a mechanical calculator. (Credit: NASA)

Johnson recalled that once she completed the calculations, and found them to be correct, that John Glenn said " If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go." Of course, Glenn's mission was successful, marking the fifth crewed spaceflight by NASA.

According to her NASA biography:

When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson would talk about the 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 Satellite (later renamed Landsat) and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said. In 2015, at age 97, Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Comments (5)
No. 1-5
Carol C. Olson
Carol C. Olson

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What a great tribute to a great pioneer in mathematics, science, and inclusion. Johnson's legacy reflects both her own work and that of the countless "calculators" - mathematicians, often women, that performed calculations for all manner of purposes - that have supported scientific efforts for generations.


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