Research and Learn Black History in 2021: NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson

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, Cape Canaveral in Florida, 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 liftoff 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”—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.

Source: NASA website (See below)

Katherine Johnson  8/26/1918 – 2/24/2020

  • Degrees in Mathematics and French
  • Mentored by fellow African American, W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, PhD in Mathematics
  • Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama
  • NASA research facility named in her honor
  • Played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures, based a book by the same name, written by Margot Lee Shetterly

Learn more by following the links:

NASA- Bio for Katherine Johnson

NASA- Research Facility

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