Katherine Johnson, the Black Shero mathematician whose calculations helped NASA reach the moon, finally gets her due. The S.S. Katherine Johnson, the first NASA flight of 2021, launched from Virginia on Saturday and carried research-related cargo to the International Space Station.
The launch took place less than 100 miles from where Ms. Johnson worked as a “human calculator” for NASA for over 30 years, beginning in the last 1950s. The internationally recognized Black mathematician, who fought racism and sexism throughout her life and career, died in 2020 at 101.
A gifted mathematician, Ms. Johnson graduated high school at age 14. Soon after, she earned a degree in Mathematics at West Virginia State College, a HBCU. She then took on a research position at NASA, where she hand-calculated NASA’s flight trajectories, the most famous of which was John Glenn’s 1962 mission around the earth. Ms. Johnson recalled that Mr. Glenn said he would only make the historic flight after she confirmed the computer’s calculations.
Ms. Johnson also calculated the first moon landing, and the space shuttle program at NASA. In 2015, at the age of 97, President Barack Obama awarded Ms. Johnson the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In a speech that same year to the Congressional Black Caucus, President Obama noted, “Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history—even if they weren’t always given a voice.”
A year later, in 2016, NASA named a $30 million, 40,000 square foot computational research center in Ms. Johnson’s honor. NASA regularly gave Johnson credit for her contributions to flight safety, and was always sure to include other Black women in her success, particularly her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan, Margery Hannah, and Christine Darden.
“I do thank you so much for your attention, for your kindness, but more than that, I’m so happy to see you giving more recognition to women for the work that they have done,” Johnson said at the time.
Ms. Johnson’s story, along with that of her Black women colleagues, was depicted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, based on the book by the same name. Hidden Figures is currently streaming on Disney+ and HBO.