NASA mathematician and computer pioneer Katherine Johnson has passed away

Katherine Johnson has passed away at the age of 101. The female mathematician played an important role in NASA’s space program in the 1960s, among other things, through her calculation skills and efforts to use computers for the calculations.

Jim Bridenstine, the head of NASA, says on Twitter that Johnson passed away this morning at the age of 101. She worked for the US Space Agency from 1953 to 1986, where she was also known as a ‘human computer’. Her career began in 1953 in the segregated Western Computing section of the NACA Langley Aeronautical Laboratory; NACA was transformed into NASA in 1958. The government agency began recruiting women, including women of African American descent, to serve as “computers” and perform the calculations for the technicians and engineers working on the space program.

Among other things, Johnson worked on the calculations for the orbits that the first American astronauts had to travel. For example, she calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard during mission in May 1961 for the Mercury program, the first manned American suborbital spaceflight. A year later, she was important to John Glenn’s orbital flight. A network of computers and tracking stations had already calculated the trajectory, but according to Johnson, Glenn asked the engineers if Johnson would recalculate. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to leave,” Glenn said before he left. This flight is also seen by NASA as a turning point in the then space race with the Soviet Union. Her calculations were also important for the 1969 flight that took Neil Armstrong to the moon; among other things, she was figuring out where and when the rocket had to be launched in order to get it on the right trajectory in the direction of the moon.

Katharine Johnson, according to NASA, always asked questions and wasn’t satisfied with just doing calculations. She also wanted to know about the how and why. In her day, women were not allowed to attend the meetings with the male engineers and scientists, but she went anyway and gradually came to be regarded as the leading figure. Also in the US there was still racial segregation, forcing Johnson and other dark-skinned female “computers” to use separate workspaces and toilets. Her office was referred to by the term ‘Colored Computers’. In a 2011 interview, Johnson said that while she knew there was segregation, she didn’t really feel it because everyone was investigating.

In 2016 the American film Hidden Figures was released, in which the American actress Taraji P. Henson played the role of Katherine Johnson. The film is a biographical drama that revolves around the ‘computers’ Johnson and her two African-American colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who worked in the West Area Computing Unit of the Langley Research Center of the NACA.

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