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Katherine Johnson: the woman behind American’s first Human Spaceflight.

Katherine Johnson’s education

Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, Katherine Johnson was the youngest of four children. Her parents raised Katherine Johnson in a modest and a humble family. Her mom was a teacher, and her Dad worked as a handyman. At a young age, Katherine showed high mathematical abilities and skipped a lot of grades in her high school. At 14, she enrolled herself in Virginia west state college, a historically black college. W. W. Schieffelin Clayton mentored her at college. Clayton is the third African American to receive a PhD in Mathematics. As a college student, she took all the mathematics courses offered by the college. And she excelled is mathematics. Seeing her enthusiasm and brilliance in mathematics, Clayton, even added new mathematics course just for her. By age 18, Katherine graduated with first class in mathematics.

Life after college

After graduating from college, Katherine first found her jobs in teaching. She did not work there for long. Katherine quit the job and enrolled herself in a graduate math program. She quit the program when she became pregnant and choose to focus on her family. She focus on her family until one day. At a family gathering in 1952, a close relative mentioned her about NASA hiring a mathematician. She applied for the job and got them. At NASA, her brilliance in analytical geometry allowed her to build a name for herself which also allows her to build good connection with her bosses. She did not let her gender and racial background distract in her pursuit of science. Katherine was an assertive and an aggressive woman, who even ask her boss to include her in the editorial meeting where no women had ever gone before.

Racism and sexual discrimination

She may be an assertive and aggressive woman, but Katherine Johnson was not free from discrimination. Other than the racial segregation at her workplace where black women could not sit together with the whites during lunchtime, she also faced lots of sexual discrimination. One particular instance of sexual discrimination was while she was working under Ted Skopinski. The supervisor of the project was Henry Pearson, a sexist. Pearson was not fancy of women and does not like to give credit to a woman. When Ted wanted to leave and go to Houston before completing one of their projects, Henry Pearson insisted he should finish the project before leaving so that Ted Skopinski, a male would be the author of the report. However, Ted Skopinski told Pearson, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway” leaving Pearson with no choice but to let Johnson put her name on the report. So, she become the first women in Flight Research Division to have a name credited on a project.

American’s first human spaceflight

From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Ms Johnson work as an aerospace Technologist. She was a specialist in analytical geometry and gust alleviation for aircraft. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961 America’s first human spaceflight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. NASA quickly found Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury capsule after the landing because of her accurate prediction of the location of landing.

Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission

When the race between America and Soviet Union intensifies after the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, Johnson also rose to the occasion. In 1962, when NASA was planning the first American orbital spaceflight, Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, a computer programmed with mathematical orbital equation controlled the trajectory of the capsule. Glen personally ask for Johnson to proof check the equation. If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go’’ was the message Glen gave. Johnson check the equation by herself and Glen’s mission was a success and it become a turning point in the competition between USA and Soviet Union in space.

Her most important contribution

Katherine also helped the trajectory of 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing when Neil Armstrong become the first man to land on the moon. Katherine also work on the 1970’s Apollo 13 moon mission. Unfortunately, when they aborted the mission, everybody was worried about getting the astronauts back to earth safely. But thanks to her backup procedure and charts, the astronauts were able to return to earth safely. In an interview she said getting the astronauts back safely was the most important contribution she had for space exploration.

By the time she retired at 68, she has co-authored 26 scientific papers along with many awards and titles. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contribution to space science.

Presidential medal for katherine johnson
US president Barack Obama presenting Presidential Medal of Honour to Katherine Johnson

President Barack Obama said,

”Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach”

Barack Obama, Former President of the United States of America

Life after NASA

In 2016, BBC included her in the 100 Most influential women worldwide. Johnson’s life was portrayed in the highly acclaimed film, Hidden Figures in 2016. In 89th academy awards, she was given a huge standing ovation by the audience. She remains a role model for many young generations.

Hidden figures and Katherine johnson
Katherine Johnson at the 89th Oscar ceremony, along with actors of Hidden Figures,
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Katherine Johnson’s death

She took her last breath on 24th February 2020. She was 101. NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said, “Our NASA family is sad to learn the news that Katherine Johnson passed away this morning at 101 years old. She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”

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