Hero of the Week: Katherine Johnson 1918-2020


US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Nasa mathematician Katherine G. Johnson on 24 November, 2015.

President Obama awarding Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Image Reuters

Katherine Johnson who was one of the finest NASA mathematicians of her time and whose calculations made possible the first U.S. crewed spaceflights, passed away at 101 on Monday. As the New York Times reported, “Mrs. Johnson was one of several hundred rigorously educated, supremely capable yet largely unheralded women who, well before the modern feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians. But it was not only her sex that kept her long marginalized and long unsung: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who began her scientific career in the age of Jim Crow, was also African-American.”

Johnson had previously calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard  (the first American in space) and it was her skill and reputation that made John Glenn ask for her specifically as he refused to fly unless she verified the calculations. She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

Johnson was depicted in the 2016 film, Hidden Figures, after decades of most Americans being unaware of her contributions to science. President Obama said it best,

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