Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician, died on Monday at age 101. Her life and work is documented in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures and brought before a worldwide audience by Theodore Melfi’s film of the same name, both released in 2016. A look at what made her life and work extraordinary — breaking racial as well as gender barriers, and helping send Americans to space.
Johnson’s skill with numbers showed early in life. At school, she was mentored by Angie Turner King, who taught her geometry. She skipped through grades to graduate from high school at age 14 and from college at age 18.
“Math had always come easily to me. I loved numbers and numbers loved me,” Johnson wrote in her autobiography, Reaching for the Moon. “They followed me everywhere. No matter what I did, I was always finding something to count: the floorboards, the cracks in the sidewalk, the trees as I walked by, the train cars stacked with timber and those piled with coal that lumbered along the edge of our town each day.”
In 1953, Johnson took up a job with NACA (the then acronym for what is now NASA) to work as a “computer” — a term used to describe humans doing calculations. She joined NACA’s all-black West Area Computing section. It was then headed by a fellow African-American woman, Dorothy Vaughan, and included Mary Jackson, who in 1958 became NASA’s first female African-American engineer. Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson are the three Hidden Figures in the book as well as the film.
NACA had a growing pool of black women “computers”. Yet, until 1958, black staff had to eat separately and use washrooms separate from the ones their white colleagues used.
Johnson began to ask questions. She was also told that women didn’t attend briefings and meetings, and asked if there was a law against it. There wasn’t, and she started attending them. “Then, of course, I’d ask why I couldn’t go myself, and eventually they just got tired of answering all my questions and just let me in to the briefings,” Johnson wrote.
Johnson would eventually go on to become the first woman from her division to have her name mentioned on a research report. “We needed to be assertive as women in those days — assertive and aggressive — and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be,” wrote Johnson, who went on to co-author many more research papers.
Soon after joining NACA, Johnson was assigned to the Flight Research Division. When her expertise in geometry got noticed, she became the only woman of the time to be pulled from the computing pool to work on other programmes.
Thus began the definitive phase of her work. She was part of the team that calculated the trajectory of America’s first human space trip in 1961, undertaken by Alan Shepard. Her work also helped Apollo 11 land on the Moon in 1969. By her own assessment, one of her most significant contributions was working on the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module.
Other highlights in the work of Johnson, who retired in 1986, was a fact-check for a 1962 mission that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. The orbits were calculated by early IBM computers. According to NASA, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl” (Johnson) to check the same equations, but by hand, with her desktop mechanical calculating machine.
Johnson remembered Glenn saying: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”