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Smithsonian Curators Remember Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Highlighted in ‘Hidden Figures,’ Who Died at 101

An African American woman who battled workplace discrimination, Johnson performed crucial calculations to send astronauts into space

Posed in Hampton, Virginia, Katherine Johnson stands before a backdrop of gathering clouds, "symbolic of the obstacles ... that she had to face in her career," says curator William Pretzer. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Annie Leibovitz, (c) Annie Leibovitz)
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NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who developed equations that helped the United States launch its first astronaut into space in 1961 and safely plant Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, died this morning at age 101.

Born Katherine Coleman in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918—a date that now commemorates Women’s Equality Day—Johnson showed an early prediliction for math. “I counted everything,” she once proclaimed. “I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

After graduating high school at age 14, Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State College with plans to pursue a career as a teacher. But her mentor, William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor—who was reportedly the third African American to receive a doctorate in math—persuaded his bright young student to change fields.

In 1953, Johnson—then Katherine Goble—began work at Langley Research Center at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, where she would stay until her retirement in 1986. Relegated to an office marked “Colored Computers,” Johnson spent her first five years at NACA dealing with a double dose of segregation. Along with the agency’s other female African American mathematicians, she worked in quarters separated from a much larger pool of white women “computers,” who were in turn kept away from their male colleagues.

But Johnson’s consignment did little to hold her back. “I didn't have time for that,” she told NASA in an interview from her home in Hampton, Virginia in 2008. “My dad taught us, ‘You are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.’ I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had.”

Striking out during “a time when computers wore skirts,” she once said, Johnson quickly proved her incomparable worth. So trusted were her calculations that astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, considered them an integral part of his preflight checklist—even after the equations had been transferred over to modern electronic machines. “When he got ready to go,” Johnson said of Glenn, “he said, ‘Call her. And if she says the computer is right, I’ll take it.”

Her work fueled innumerable feats of aeronautics, several of which were outlined in the 26 research papers Johnson published over her decades-long career. The earliest of these publications made Johnson one of the first women at NASA to become a named author or co-author on an agency report, according to Margalit Fox at the New York Times.

“Katherine Johnson’s story really shows us the power of individuals to bring their talents to bear,” says Margaret Weitekamp, curator and chair of the space history department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “Even with all the restrictions and biases against recognizing her potential to contribute to the mission, that she became invaluable. That really speaks to her competence and her resilience.”

Though Johnson’s landmark contributions went mostly unheralded by mainstream media throughout her tenure at Langley, the 2010s finally brought her name into the public eye. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who described Johnson as “a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science, and reach for the stars,” reports Russell Lewis for NPR. The next year, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, as well as a movie adaptation by the same name, highlighted the accomplishments of Johnson and her colleagues.

The film was nominated for three Oscars. When Johnson took the stage at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, the mathematician—then 98 years old and the only one of the movie’s central characters still alive at the time of its release—received a thunderous standing ovation. That fall, NASA dedicated a new Langley building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Commenting on the commemoration, Johnson laughed. “I think they’re crazy,” she told NASA in a pre-taped interview. “I always liked something new. But give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone, but tried to go to the root of the question and succeeded there.”

In 2018, Mattel debuted a Katherine Johnson Barbie as a part of their Inspiring Women line. Last year, Congress awarded four of its prestigious Gold Medals to Johnson and her NASA colleagues Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden, as well as a fifth medal to honor thousands of other female “human computers” who previously went unrecognized for their work.

Though Johnson herself never ventured into the cosmos, her formulas—scrawled on paper with a pencil and a slide rule—will continue to power spaceflight for decades to come. “If we go back to the moon, or to Mars, we’ll be using her math,” Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, said in a 2017 interview with the Washington Post.

But perhaps Johnson’s greatest legacy remains well within the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere. Even in retirement, she advocated tirelessly for education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, paving a path for students free to explore their passions without several of the barriers she faced in her own youth. “Looking back on Katherine Johnson’s life, one has to wonder how much more she might have been able to achieve if the path to becoming an aerospace engineer had really been open to her … instead of being in a support role,” Weitekamp says.

“This is a moment of transition,” says William Pretzer, senior curator of history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where a portrait of Johnson, captured by Annie Leibovitz in 2016, remains on display. With so many eager to break into the world of science, he says, we have the opportunity to learn from the past, and champion a new generation of innovators and leaders. “The torch has been passed. And we have to grab it.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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