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Where would NASA be without her? Remembering Katherine Johnson, famed NASA mathematician

Celebrating NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died at 101 on Feb. 24, 2020

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

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Calculating is truly a science and not everyone can “sum it up” like the brilliant mind that belonged to Katherine Johnson.

A black and white photo of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson
Photos: NASA

Johnson faced many odds when she started to pursue her career as a research mathematician. The field was difficult for African Americans and women to enter, but she bravely pursued her dreams regardless of the viewpoints during 1950s America.

A family member tipped her off that National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, and later changed to NASA in 1958) was hiring mathematicians and Johnson jumped at the opportunity. She accepted a job offer from the agency in 1953.

Johnson's calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first NASA-crewed spaceflight, paving the way for future spaceflights. Johnson mastered complex calculations, by hand. Additionally, Johnson helped push the use of computers to perform the calculating tasks. NASA credits her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist."

Johnson’s gifted understanding of numbers allowed her to calculate trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights. These include those formulated for astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn. She also computed rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission to Mars.

A photo of Katherine Johnson outside of a research facility named after here on NASA's campus

Johnson stated that her greatest contribution to space exploration was making "the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo's Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module." In other words, helping to put men on the moon in 1969.

Astronauts weren't keen on "putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts," according to NASA and reported in NBC News. Glenn asked engineers to "get the girl," referring to Johnson, to run the computer equations by hand. “If she says they're good,'” Johnson remembered Glenn 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," NASA says.

NASA would not be where it is today without the exceptional work of Johnson, who retired from the space agency in 1986, after working there for over three decades. “I loved going to work every single day,” Johnson said at the time. Her gifts to humanity were awarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal.

In her later years, Johnson encouraged students to pursue the fields of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology (STEM).

"Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement to NBC News.

Johnson passed away February 24, 2020 at age 101.

In a tweet, Bridenstine called Johnson "an American hero" and stated that "her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten." We couldn't agree more.

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