“They were going to the moon. I computed the path that would get you there. You determined where you were on Earth when you started out, and where the moon would be at a given time. We told them how fast they would be going, and the moon will be there by the time you got there.”—Katherine Johnson
We’re highlighting a couple of important TechMAKERS this week for Women’s History Month. These women have made incredible strides in STEM, despite the challenges they faced entering professional and academic fields that are overwhelmingly male-dominated.
It was only recently, with the release of Hidden Figures, that Katherine Johnson received the public recognition she deserved. There was not much visibility granted to a woman of color working at NASA in the 1960s.
Katherine made innumerable contributions to our space program, but the most important was being part of the team that put an American on the moon. She calculated the trajectory analysis for the mission because the computer they used was known to be faulty. We repeat: Katherine Johnson’s calculations were more trusted than that of NASA’s computers.
Katherine Johnson (b.
1918) is a physicist and mathematician who has made crucial contributions to
several NASA missions, assuring their success with her highly accurate
calculations. She worked with NASA for several decades, and helped advance the
rights of both African-Americans and women.
She initially worked as a human computer, and later as an
aerospace technologist. She calculated trajectories for missions such as the
1961 Mercury mission or the 1969 Apollo 11 flight. She was portrayed by Taraji
P. Henson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Johnson is an black American mathematician who’s work with orbital mechanics proved critical to the success of early NASA missions. Her work included calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Project Mercury, the rendezvous paths for the Apollo Command and Lunar Module on it’s trip to the Moon, and her work was pivotal during the development of the Space Shuttle program.
She was initially hired on at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a human computer, but her knowledge of analytic geometry helped her move up to an aerospace technologist. Once NACA was folded into NASA in 1958, Johnson worked in the Spacecraft Controls Branch, and she was often called by management to verify electronic computations.
In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her instrumental work with NASA. In 2016, a brand new building at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was named after her. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility began operations in 2017.
“One of Nasa’s “human computers”, who helped plan the mission that saw an American astronaut orbit the Earth for the first time, has opened a new research centre named in her honour.
The key contribution of Katherine Johnson, 99, and other African-American women to the US space programme was recounted in the film Hidden Figures, which gave overdue recognition to their work. The film was the highest grossing Best Picture nominee at the Oscars.
The maths involved in the orbital mission was highly complex, and the computers of the day were prone to technical hiccups.
So as astronaut John Glenn was going through the preflight checklist – upon which his life depended – he insisted that Ms Johnson double check the calculations.
“If she says they’re good,” Ms Johnson remembered Mr Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.”
Five storied female NASA pioneers will soon grace toy-store shelves, in Lego form.
The Danish company announced on Tuesday that it would produce the Women of NASA set, submitted by science writer Maia Weinstock.
“Women have played critical roles throughout the history of the U.S. space program,” Weinstock wrote in her project proposal. “Yet in many cases, their contributions are unknown or under-appreciated – especially as women have historically struggled to gain acceptance in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
She said the set is meant to shed light on the rich history of women in STEM professions.
NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson appears onstage with Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.