As a pivotal figure in the Space Race between the United States and the U.S.S.R during the 1960s, Katherine Johnson had an incredible life but only received the national attention she deserved in recent years. She was one of the central characters in the book (and the 2016 movie) Hidden Figures. Her mathematical genius and barrier-breaking research as a Black woman at NASA are now widely recognized as crucial to putting the first American in orbit, landing on the moon, and many other space developments. In honor of her achievements, the aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman has named a new NG-15 Cygnus cargo craft the S.S. Katherine Johnson. The craft carrying her name will travel to the International Space Station in February 2021.
Northrop Grumman traditionally names its spacecrafts after pivotal figures in space exploration history. The company cited Johnson’s pioneering mathematical work, saying, “Her work at NASA quite literally launched Americans into space, and her legacy continues to inspire young Black women every day.” The new craft named in her honor is far from the first STEM-related development that bears her name. In 2019, NASA renamed one of its West Virginia facilities the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility. In November 2020, a satellite was also named “Katherine Johnson” in her honor.
Johnson, who was born in 1918 in West Virginia, showed exceptional math prowess from an early age. Beginning college at age 15, she particularly excelled in geometry—which would later lead to her work on orbital paths in space. After graduating, she worked as a teacher and started a family. In 1952, she heard news that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring Black female mathematicians as “human computers” to crunch numbers for flight data. In 1953, she was hired and began working in the West Area Computing group at NACA. At the time, an increasing number of women were being hired to run numbers, but the workers were still segregated due to the Jim Crow laws in effect in Virginia.
In 1958, NACA became NASA in pursuit of space flight. The Russians had launched their satellite Sputnik the year earlier, and the U.S. was determined to make it to the Moon before the Soviets. Under NASA, segregated work spaces were integrated; the women collectively would be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2019 for their decades of under-appreciated work running equations and data until the advent of sufficient computers in the 1980s. In 1961 aboard Freedom 7, Alan Shepard became the first American in space—his flight trajectory was analyzed by Johnson. The next year, her orbital calculations were critical to the first American orbit by a manned craft. The astronaut aboard, John Glenn, was said to have only trusted the finicky early computers once Johnson had done the math herself.
Like many of the female computers, and particularly her Black colleagues, Johnson’s work remained relatively unrecognized by the public until recent years. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Her career at NASA lasted 33 years, during which she authored or coauthored 26 research reports and worked on critical NASA projects. Her work helped bring space travel from its earliest iterations into the computer age.
In February 2020, Johnson passed away at the age of 101. Her name is finally recognized as the brilliant, pioneering, once-“hidden” figure that she was. The space shuttle bearing her name will launch this month.
Pioneering, brilliant Black mathematician Katherine Johnson made history for her mathematical work on space flight over a 33 year career at NASA. Now, a new spacecraft named after her will launch this month.
Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])