John Herschel Glenn Jr. was an American aviator in the United States Marine Corps before joining NASA to become one of the first men in space. Glenn was also the first man to go around the earth, but did you ever wonder who verified the computation of that particular mission?
When NASA employed electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, Katherine Johnson had to double-check the computer’s numbers. She was personally requested by Glenn. He refused to fly unless she confirmed the computation.
Who is Katherine Johnson?
Johnson was born in 1918 in a little West Virginia hamlet and has always been captivated by numbers.
“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed, anything that could be counted, I did.“Katherine Johnson
She excelled in school, graduating from high school at the age of 14 and university at the age of 18.
In an era when school for African-Americans generally ceased at eighth grade for those who could indulge in that luxury, her intellectual achievements were particularly outstanding.NASA
Johnson began working for Nasa’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in 1953 after working as a teacher and a stay-at-home mother.
During the space competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union, Johnson and her African-American coworkers were housed in separate buildings from white workers, with separate toilets and dining spaces. She always claimed that she was too preoccupied with her work to be concerned about unfair treatment.
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. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson’s Passing
NASA confirmed Katherine Johnson’s death via Twitter, saying it was honoring “er legacy of greatness that broke down racial and socioeconomic barriers and commemorating her life. Johnson estimated rocket trajectories and Earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions and was trusted by astronauts like John Glenn.
Hidden Figures, an Oscar-nominated film released in 2016 talks about her life in NASA, and the adversities she had to overcome to pave the way for other African-American women.
The movie focuses on the story of African-American women who helped launch US astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the Earth in 1962 thanks to their arithmetic skills. Before his trip, Johnson double-checked the calculations made by new electronic computers.
Johnson had previously estimated Alan Shepard’s space voyage trajectory, making him the first American in space. Glenn had expressly requested her because of her skill and reputation and had refused to fly unless she confirmed the calculations. She also assisted in planning the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.
Johnson was recognized as a leader from our pioneering days.
Ms. Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space. Her dedication and skill as a mathematician helped put humans on the Moon and before that made it possible for our astronauts to take the first steps in space that we now follow on a journey to Mars.Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his State of the Union address, then-US President Barack Obama mentioned her as an example of the country’s spirit of exploration. (Source: BBC)