WASHINGTON (CN) – Katherine Johnson, who died at 101 on Monday, was a “human computer” and one of a handful of pioneering black mathematicians who crunched the numbers NASA needed to get crewed spacecraft off the ground and into the heavens.
Her story was the basis of the Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” about a group of black women who played a crucial role in the success of the U.S. space program in the 1960s.
Johnson, who originally hailed from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, started her career as a school teacher. But in 1953, she began working for the organization that preceded NASA – NACA, short for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics –in Langley, Virginia.
It was there that Johnson would use the most advanced technology available to her at the time – a mechanical calculator and slide rule – to check the complex flight calculations developed by mainly white male supervisors and senior engineers.
During her tenure at NACA, Johnson analyzed trajectory pathways for the first-ever human spaceflight mission: the 1961 Freedom 7 mission led by astronaut Alan Shepard.
Later, she would receive credit as the first woman in NACA’s Flight Research Division to co-author a report on orbital spaceflight.
The 1960 report “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” was co-written with engineer Ted Skopinski but Johnson’s calculations represented the lion’s share of the work. Women receiving a byline or credit for their research was a nonstarter at NASA before Johnson.
The report determined how to launch, move, track and most importantly, how to land a spacecraft at a specific point. It was Johnson’s equations that would be applied for John Glenn’s orbital flight in 1962.
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” Johnson said in an interview with NASA from 2008. “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
Rather famously, Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, had such trust in Johnson’s capabilities that he requested she double check the calculations of an actual computer before he took off.
Though NASA was technically racially integrated when Johnson came aboard, the designation was nominal at best as neither black people nor black women in particular were welcomed openly into the science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
In a 1992 NASA interview, Johnson noted how a woman could “work [her] teeth out” yet still fail to see their name on a report that bore her work.
Her intelligence was as well-known as her courage and assertiveness. During the same 1992 interview, Johnson described an interaction with one of her superiors at NASA who informed her that she would not be allowed to join her male co-workers for a presentation involving her research.
Pressing her boss, Johnson said that she retorted: “Is there a law that says I can’t?”
Her boss gave in.
Johnson’s early achievements gave way to many more, including the placement of her byline on at least another two dozen critical aeronautic reports before she retired in 1986.
Her calculations on orbital movement, along with the assistance of other colleagues, drastically shaped NASA’s Apollo lunar program and as NASA now prepares to voyage toward the next frontier – Mars – it will be her calculations that are relied on yet again.
Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., called Johnson a trailblazer on Monday via Twitter and said she helped realize one of “humankind’s oldest dreams” – space flight.
For her extraordinary accomplishments, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barak Obama in 2015.
Upon news of her passing Monday, Congresswoman Val Demings, D.-Fla., who was the first woman to serve as chief of police for Orlando, remembered Johnson’s legacy on Twitter.
“Katherine Johnson broke barriers of race and gravity. She helped humanity reach for space and touch the moon. She opened the wonders of the universe to every little girl who dreams of the night sky,” Demings said. “When you look at the stars tonight, remember her.”