Katherine Johnson, the legendary NASA mathematician, dies at 101
BY MIKE HOLTZCLAW
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Katherine Johnson, the NASA Langley Research Center mathematician who went from “hidden” to hero in her late 90s, died on Feb. 24 at the age of 101.
In the early days of the space program, before the advent of modern computers, Johnson’s precise trajectory calculations – done with pencil and paper, or chalk and blackboard – put John Glenn and other astronauts into orbit and brought them safely home.
She was part of a team of “human computers” who inspired Margot Lee Shetterly’s bestselling book “Hidden Figures,” which was subsequently adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie that turned Johnson into an icon of perseverance and dignity.
Johnson was always quick to point out that she was part of a team. When people would gush admiration and ask about her accomplishments, she would simply smile and say she was “just doing my job, like anyone else.”
“Hidden Figures” celebrated the story a group of African American women who did landmark work at NASA Langley in a time and place when neither Black people nor women were thought to have a place in science and technology fields.
Shetterly, a Hampton native, was thrilled that her book cast such a spotlight on Johnson and other women whose contributions had gone largely unnoticed.
“She is so deserving,” Shetterly said in September 2017, when NASA Langley dedicated a new computer lab in Johnson’s name. “We celebrate celebrities and sports stars, and we talk about how wonderful it would be if we gave that kind of attention to people whose accomplishments were more scientific or academic. Well this is us doing that.”
Medal, Barbie doll
Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She spoke on stage at the Academy Awards and posed for celebrity portrait photographer Annie Liebovitz. A Barbie doll was crafted in her image.
She seemed to delight in all of this, but said she took more satisfaction from the knowledge that a generation of young women might be inspired by her story to pursue educations and careers in scientific and technological fields. She remained humble, somewhat amused at the fuss being made over her.
“It was my job,” she told the Daily Press in a 2016 interview. “They gave me questions and I worked on them. They wanted to go to the moon, so I looked up the distance to the moon and worked up the equations about how long it would be in space before it got there. It was my job, and I did it.
“Every day, I got to do what I love. The harder it was, the better I liked it.”
Astronaut Yvonne Cagle served as Johnson’s escort at public events in recent years, maneuvering her wheelchair and offering any assistance that was necessary. Cagle, who was also a flight surgeon and a retired Air Force colonel, said she was humbled to be working with a woman she had long admired.
Compared to Johnson’s accomplishments, Cagle said in 2017, “space was easier.”
The two women had met 20 years earlier, when both were honored by the National Technical Association.
“She is the shoulders I stand on and the bar I try to reach,” Cagle said. “She gave voice to capabilities and competencies and talents that often had not been allowed to percolate to the surface.
“She always said she doesn’t understand what’s the big deal because she was just doing her job to the best of her ability. Whenever I think about standing at the feet of genius, those are the words I think of. Those words continue to motivate me.”
College at 14
She was born Katherine Coleman on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Growing up in a county that did not educate Black children past the eighth grade, she attended high school courses on the campus of historically Black West Virginia State University.
She matriculated into the college at age 14 and earned degrees in mathematics and French at age 18 with summa cum laude honors. When she had mastered every math class offered at the school, the professors established new ones to challenge her.
‘An American story’
Some 82 years after she graduated, on her 100th birthday, her alma mater dedicated a statue of her on campus and endowed a scholarship directed at young women in technological fields of study.
West Virginia State president Anthony Jenkins said he wondered whether Johnson truly understood how broad her impact had been.
“She was not just a part of NASA’s story,” Jenkins said a few weeks before the statue dedication in 2018. “Katherine Johnson is not an African American story or a women’s story – she is an American story. To be able to sit and talk with someone who helped change America, that empowers me.”
Family and career
She married James Goble in 1939 and had three daughters. Goble died of a brain tumor in 1956, and three years later she married Jim Johnson. The Johnsons were married for six decades, until his death in March.
In 1953, Johnson came with her family to Newport News and accepted a mathematics job in the Guidance and Navigation department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field in Hampton, which would transform into the NASA Langley Research Center.
Her aptitude for analytical geometry proved vital, and she had the self-assurance to request permission to actively participate in high-level meetings from which women had previously been excluded.
Under racial segregation laws of the time period, she and the other African American women doing similar jobs had to work, eat and use the restrooms in separate facilities.
Name on report
In 1958, NASA formally desegregated the facility. Also at the time, female researchers were not allowed to put their names on reports to which they had contributed. The extent of Johnson’s contributions also helped to break down that barrier.
“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive,” she said in a 1999 interview with author Wini Warren. “I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston. Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on.
“Finally Ted told him, ‘Katherine should finish the report – she’s done most of the work anyway.’ Ted left Pearson no choice. I finished the report and my name went on it. That was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”
In 1961, she calculated the trajectories for Alan Shepard to become the first American in space, including backup trajectories to be used in the case of equipment failure.
Perhaps her most celebrated moment at NASA came on Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
The critical details of his flight and re-entry trajectories had been calculated by new electronic computers, but Glenn refused to launch until Mission Control consulted Johnson to verify the computer’s results by hand.
Shetterly wrote: “The astronaut who became a hero looked to this Black woman, in the still segregated South at the time, as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”
Retired in 1986
Johnson helped NASA make a full transition to digital computers. She was part of the team that calculated trajectories for the moon landing in 1969, and her emergency back-up charts were one of the keys to the safe return of the aborted Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
She continued to contribute to the space program and the shuttle program until her retirement from NASA in 1986. Johnson continued to live on the Peninsula and remain active, singing in the choir at Carver Baptist Church. She was learning to speak Spanish at age 98 and still playing bridge at 99.
After Shetterly’s book came out and was made into a hit film, Johnson became a national figure. She eventually needed a post office box to accommodate the volume of letters that poured in, often from teachers and their students thanking her for the inspiration.
“Thank God for the book and the movie,” then-governor Terry McAuliffe said in 2017, “because they helped people understand what she did for the country. She broke down so many barriers. She knocked them down and did so admirably.”
She is survived by her daughters Joylette and Katherine, as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.