The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Katherine Johnson

Mar 2, 2020

Katherine Johnson died on February 24th of this year. Made famous by the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, she accomplished much during 101 years.

Johnson worked for NASA, a predominantly white and male institution. When she arrived at NASA in 1953, signs still designated certain bathrooms as being for “colored” people. Women, white and black, worked as human computers, doing calculations now done by computers. But the women computers were segregated.

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia. Her mother was a school teacher and her father was a farmer who became a bellman.

Johnson earned a B.S. degree in French and math by the age of 18.

In the early 1950s, she heard that mathematicians were needed at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA. She was hired in 1953 as a computer. At that time, computers were understood to mean a human who performed calculations.

She fought for and won a spot in previously all-male meetings that allowed her to play a larger role.

In 1960, she was the co-author of a NASA report, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.” It was one of more than two dozen research papers she wrote or helped to write.

She calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard’s first space flight, in 1959. She verified the mathematics behind John Glenn’s orbit around earth in 1962 and calculated the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon.

Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. She is survived by two of her three daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

If not for the recent film, no one would know of Katherine Johnson’s work and how she and other women made many things possible, including going to the moon and back.

Katherine Johnson never entertained the lie that women can’t do math. She didn’t let racism or sexism stop her.