Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest mathematical minds in the U.S, Katherine Johnson, died at 101 on Monday, 24th February, in Newport News, Va. She calculated the accurate trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, let it returns to Earth.
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was an African-American mathematician who was well known for her services she offered for multiple U.S space missions, including Apollo 11, pronounced as “human-computer.” She worked at NASA over three decades, and her pioneering calculations charts many flight paths and helped astronauts to go to the moon when America and Russia were indulged in a space war and NASA was facing considerable hurdles in defeating Russia. Katherine’s calculations not only established NASA’s credibility, but she equally fought for the rights of black women in early 1950, when they were neglected and discouraged in America in every sphere of life.
As a child, Katherine’s sharpness in mathematics was evident as she was great in calculations and playing with numbers. She earned a degree in mathematics with high honors and started working for NACA, NASA’s predecessor, where she worked with other black women in the West Computers division. She contributed to her male counterparts in analyzing flight test data and later provided necessary derivation for different space missions trajectories.
Katherine’s aptitude and inclination toward numbers naturally led her to embark on a career in mathematical research. These days, this field was dominated by white American men. Still, with her hard work, dedication, and devotion to her work, she proved that nothing is impossible for women if they are provided with opportunities.
In 1952, she got informed about some vacancies offered by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. Though, it was announced that NACA IS accepting applications for the posts of mathematicians, irrespective of race, caste, color, and gender, for their Guidance and Navigation Department. As per the announcement, Katherine and the number of other black women incouraged and applied. Katherine was among many others who have had received a formal job offer in 1953. Later found that the working environment at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, West Virginia, was purely biased, and they were not even allowed to drink, eat or share the bathroom with her white male counterparts.
In such a worst working environment, Katherine accepted all challenges and worked on the same post from 1953 to 1958. From West Area Computers section, later, she transferred to the Guidance and Control Division, which was mostly plagued by racist laws. The federal workplace segregation laws were never allowed African-American women to work, eat, and use restrooms that were different from their peers. The stations where they worked were labeled ‘Colored Computers.’ Katherine not only fought for her own due rights but equally motivated other black women who were working in a different department of Langley Aeronautical Laboratory.
She was keen on plotting the navigator charts for astronauts in situations where electric systems failed. Later, when NASA adopted the new technology, astronaut John Glenn, asked Katherine to calculate his mission’s orbit around the Earth. He wholeheartedly accepted he could never make an orbit until Johnson verified his trajectory calculations.
With the advent of digital computers, she kick-started her work directly with machines and rightly estimated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight that successfully landed on the moon’s surface.
In 1970, she also contributed to the Apollo 13 moon mission. At the moment when the mission was officially aborted, she made calculations that primarily focused on a backup plan, her provided navigation charts ensured the crew to safely back to the Earth.
The last project she worked for was the Space Shuttle Program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and a mission on Mars. Later she got retired from Nasa in 1986. Her life and efforts were picturized in the movie “Hidden Figures”, released in January 2017 and got three Oscar awards nominations.
Saadeqa Khan is the founder, CEO, & Editor-in-Chief of Scientia Pakistan. She’s a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (Second Cohort) and NASW. Saadeqa is a fellow of NPF Washington, The Falling Walls Foundation, and the Science Journalism Forum. Saadeqa has won several international journalism grants and awards for her reports.