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Remembering Katherine Johnson

Written by Science

Legendary NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson recently passed away, at the age of 101.

After watching Hidden Figures, a film focussing on the work of Johnson, and other African-American women working at NASA, I became fascinated by her story. To me, Johnson deserved to be a household name, like her NASA peers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Yet, her identity as a woman of colour presented continuous barriers to her achieving this status. Despite her greatest achievements occurring during the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2015 that Johnson finally received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She subsequently had two NASA facilities named after her, and received a NASA award usually reserved for those who have completed space flight, such was her contribution to advancing American space exploration.

If it wasn’t for Johnson’s work, several famous space exhibitions could have ended quite differently.

It all began in 1959, when she became the first woman- of any race- to be credited with authoring a report produced by the NASA flight research division. She went on to either author or co-author another 25 reports. She was also the first woman allowed to attend senior meetings in her division. Three years later, her calculations were put into practical use when John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, insisted she be the one to check whether a computer had correctly calculated his flight trajectory. She had previously helped Alan Shepherd become the first American in space, calculating various flight trajectories without the use of a computer.

Whenever NASA made significant progress in the 1960s, it seems Johnson was involved, albeit behind the scenes. She was forced to work, and eat separately from her white peers, and even had to use separate restrooms, as decreed by federal law. Segregation remained in place until the mid-1960s, but Johnson later stated that she refused to see this as a barrier to her achievement. Her achievements were, accordingly, plentiful, even if they were seldom publicly acknowledged.

Later in the 1960s, Johnson played as important a role as any astronaut, when it came to sending Americans to the moon. She helped calculate the trajectories involved in the 1969 moon-landing, and played a key-role in ensuring the crew of the ill-fated Apollo-13 lunar mission were able to return to Earth safely.

Throughout her career, Johnson undoubtedly paved the way for both women, and people of colour, to pursue a career in S.T.E.M. Regardless of her achievements, the fact she was even able to work at NASA at all is incredible, given the bigoted attitudes displayed in 1950s America. However, when it comes to remembering Johnson, we shouldn’t focus on her gender, or the colour of her skin. Instead, we should remember her for exactly what she was: extra-ordinarily intelligent.

Last modified: 16th March 2020

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