Katherine Johnson, one of the most renowned mathematicians in the history of NASA upon whom the 2016 movie Hidden Figures was based, turned 101 on Monday (August 26). She had joined NASA’s predecessor space agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) back in the summer of 1953. Johnson is known for calculating the orbital equations for the trajectories of the Friendship 7 missions in 1961 and 1962, according to the US space agency.
When she began her journey with NACA, Johnson focused on analysing the data from flight tests and plane crashes during the initial years. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 changed her life, according to NASA’s dedicated webpage on Johnson. Katherine had provided some of the mathemetical solutions for the Notes on Space Technology – a collection of a series of lectures in 1958 given by the engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD).
As NACA got rechristened as NASA, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s historic mission Freedom 7 in May 1961, which was the first human spaceflight by the US. In 1962, she verified the calculations an IBM computer had made for John Glenn’s first orbital mission. The computers were programmed with the orbital equations that would control Friendship 7 mission’s trajectory from take off to landing. However, the astronauts were concerned about putting their lives in the hands of the electronic calculating machines that were prone to hiccups and blackouts back then.
She had also assisted in several Apollo missions. Her calculations have helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the Command and Service Module orbiting the Moon.
She had also worked on Space Shuttle and Earth Resources Satellite and authored or co-authored 26 research reports before retiring at 1986. In 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, highest civilian honor in the US by President Barack Obama.
Her life story was depicted in the Hollywood movie Hidden Figures which starred Taraji P. Henson that was released in December 2016.