Katherine Johnson: Getting the Numbers Right

History chooses whom to remember and whom to forget. And such was the case of African American women who worked for NASA in its early days as “human computers,” mathematicians, scientists and engineers.

One of these highly intelligent and strongly motivated women was Katherine Johnson who died this week at the age of 101. I watched an NBC news clip in which she said she had always been fascinated with numbers, even as a child: “I counted everything! I counted plates when I washed dishes. I counted steps from home to church.”

Johnson, along with her black women colleagues at NASA, was largely forgotten by history until Margaret Lee Shetterly wrote her 2016 book HIDDEN FIGURES. Subsequently the film HIDDEN FIGURES, based on the book, was released and later was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Before non-human computers, with her mathematical genius, Johnson calculated equations by hand of rocket trajectories, orbits, and landings. She made the necessary calculations for astronaut Alan Shepard to travel into space in 1961. The Russians had already put a man into space, but Shepard was the first American.

Of the many space missions for which Johnson computed and/or verified calculations, Johnson has said she was most proud of her work toward the Apollo missions. Among those was the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon while the command module manned by Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit. And thanks to her numbers’ savvy, they all had a safe journey back to earth.

Katherine Johnson got the numbers right and did not let race or gender discrimination hinder her accomplishments even though it took many years for her to get the recognition she deserves. President Obama acknowledged her contributions by presenting Johnson with the Medal of Freedom in 2015. I think we all might want to say, “Thank you, Katherine Johnson.”

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