NASA on Monday announced the passing away of Katherine Johnson, the trailblazer aerospace technician whose life was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures”.
“We’re saddened by the passing of celebrated #HiddenFigures mathematician Katherine Johnson. Today, we celebrate her 101 years of life and honour her legacy of excellence that broke down racial and social barriers,” read a statement on the NASA Twitter account.
In her own words, Johnson was a “computer, when the computer wore a skirt”.
She was hired by NASA in 1953, but until 1958, she and other black women had been forced to work in a racially segregated unit at what is now known as the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
In NASA’s early years, she was renowned for calculating rocket trajectories and earth orbits by ‘hand’ – without the aid of computers.
Having initially focused her work on airplanes and other research, Johnson was later transferred to work on Project Mercury, the United States’ first human space program.
In 1961 she was involved with the first ever mission to take an American, Alan Shepard, into space.
Trusted more than a computer
A year later, when John Glenn orbited the Earth in the Friendship 7, NASA were using actual computers.
But as Johnson was quoted saying on NASA’s website, her expertise were still called upon – at that point the astronauts did not trust the computers being used:
“You could do much more, much faster on computer,” she said. “But when they went to computers, they called over and said, ‘tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.’ So I checked it and it was correct.”
She was attending a sorority meeting in the Pocono Mountains during Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in 1969, and admitted to being a bit nervous.
“It all seemed routine to people by then,” she said. “I had done the calculations and knew they were correct. But just like driving from Williamsburg this morning, anything could happen. I didn’t want anything to happen and it didn’t.”
Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, and graduated from West Virginia State College with highest honours in 1937.
She retired from NASA in 1986 after which she tutored youngsters in mathematics.