Out of this world

We couldn’t possibly finish our celebration of Black History Month without discussing Katherine Johnson, who along with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson was the inspiration behind the best-selling book and 2016 film ‘Hidden Figures’.

Born in 1918 Katherine began making breakthroughs at a young age. When West Virginia integrated its graduate schools in 1939, Katherine was selected as one of three black students to be offered places at the state’s flagship – West Virginia University.

Following graduate school, Johnson embarked on a career as a research mathematician – a difficult field to enter as both an African American and a woman. When a relative mentioned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the precursor to today’s NASA – was hiring mathematicians, Katherine applied and was offered a job in 1953.

The next four years was taken up investigating plane crashes caused by wake turbulence. The research conducted helped shape Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight where Katherine provided trajectory analysis. Despite this pivotal work, Johnson and the other African-American women in the computing pool were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers up until desegregation in 1958 when NACA became NASA.

The cast of Hidden Figures: Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer pose with Katherine Johnson at 2017’s Academy Awards

In 1962 Johnson was called upon to work on the project she would become most known for, the orbital mission of John Glenn. Astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the hands of new electronic computing machines (prior to 1958 NASA only employed human “computers” – a job title which meant “one who computes”), as they were prone to problems. As a part of the pre-flight preparations, Glenn requested staff to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, by hand.

“If she says they’re good… then I’m ready to go” said Glenn.

Glenn’s flight was a success and signified a turning point in the space race between the USA and Soviet Union.

Johnson retired in 1986 after 33 years at what is now known as Langley Research Center. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said. In 2015 Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour by President Barack Obama.

She passed away on 24 February 2020, but her pioneering legacy lives on.

President Barack Obama presents Katherine G. Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2015 Presidential Medal Of Freedom Ceremony