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Happy 100th Birthday to Legendary NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson

By Brian Richards | News Stories | August 28, 2018 |

By Brian Richards | News Stories | August 28, 2018 |


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This past Sunday, Katherine Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday. And for those of you who are reading this and asking, “Who the hell is Katherine Johnson?” this brief post will hopefully answer your question for you and inspire you to do further research about this woman and her accomplishments that far too many teachers, professors, and antiquated/overpriced textbooks have refused to tell you anything about.

Katherine Johnson (maiden name: Goble) worked as a mathematician at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, alongside other African-American women, who were referred to as ‘computers.’ They read and analyzed data from black boxes on planes. Because of her vast knowledge on analytic geometry, Katherine also worked on calculations of orbital mechanics and trajectories that were instrumental for many successful space flights, including those of Alan Shepard (who flew on Project Mercury-Redstone 3 to help determine human capabilities in a space environment and what a person would be subject to upon going into and returning from space) and John Glenn (who flew on the Friendship 7 mission and became the third American in space as well as the first man to ever orbit the Earth). The success of the Friendship 7 mission was largely thanks to Katherine and John Glenn, who insisted on Katherine’s calculations to ensure that the flight would be a successful one before suiting up. From NASA.com:

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to do the work that she would become most known for. The complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to IBM computers in Washington, DC, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

Katherine’s accomplishments, as well as that of her colleagues and fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, were written about by Margot Lee Shetterly in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was then adapted last year in to the film Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy, and Janelle Monae as Mary. It earned rave reviews from critics, took in $236 million worldwide at the box office, received at least one or two eye-rolls from audience members at Kevin Costner’s Mighty Whitey moment of his character destroying the “Whites Only” sign outside of the women’s bathroom followed by him saying, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” and many people wondering why this film (and an episode of the much-beloved, short-lived, still-missed television series Timeless, which is fortunately coming back later this year for a two-hour finale to wrap things up) was the first that they had ever heard of Katherine Johnson.

In November of 2015, Katherine was presented by President Barack Obama with the highest honor a civilian could receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her work done at NASA.

In May of 2016, Katherine was honored at NASA’s Langley Research Center, where it was announced that the newest Computational Research Facility to be built would be named after her, and where she was also given the Silver Snoopy award, for her outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success.

And at the 2017 Academy Awards, Katherine appeared alongside Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae to present the award for Best Documentary. When she appeared on stage, Katherine received a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd.

And if that wasn’t enough, she was also given her very own Barbie doll earlier this year in honor of International Women’s Day.

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As part of her 100th birthday celebration, Twitter joined in on the fun and @NASA_Langley used the #Happy100Katherine hashtag to allow others to share their thoughts on the importance of both Katherine and her work.

Here’s to Katherine Johnson celebrating one hundred years of life, to all that she has accomplished during those many years, and to reminding us once again that representation matters in all walks of life, and that there are far too many stories of women and men out there who have accomplished equally amazing things, only to remain hidden until being brought out into the light for all of us to learn about.



Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.


Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Mattel Photo


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