Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA

Margalit Fox in The New York Times:

They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them. Wielding little more than a pencil, a slide rule and one of the finest mathematical minds in the country, Mrs. Johnson, who died at 101 on Monday at a retirement home in Newport News, Va., calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 and, after Neil Armstrong’s history-making moonwalk, let it return to Earth. A single error, she well knew, could have dire consequences for craft and crew. Her impeccable calculations had already helped plot the successful flight of Alan B. Shepard Jr., who became the first American in space when his Mercury spacecraft went aloft in 1961. The next year, she likewise helped make it possible for John Glenn, in the Mercury vessel Friendship 7, to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Yet throughout Mrs. Johnson’s 33 years in NASA’s Flight Research Division — the office from which the American space program sprang — and for decades afterward, almost no one knew her name.

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. In old age, Mrs. Johnson became the most celebrated of the small cadre of black women — perhaps three dozen — who at midcentury served as mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)

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