At Rocket Women we’re saddened to hear of the passing of trailblazing Rocket Woman Katherine Johnson at 101-years-old on 24th February 2020. Katherine Johnson played a role in every major US space program, from Alan Shepard’s inaugural Mercury flight, making him the first American in space, to the Space Shuttle program.
Katherine’s inspirational work for the US space program predates the creation of NASA & she began to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA in 1953 where women had been hired to calculate results, this in an era prior to the modern electronic computer. The job title of these women were ‘Computer’.
Katherine Johnson was hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African-Americans and women. Exhibiting exceptional technical leadership, Katherine was especially known for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to land humans on the surface of the moon.
In her later NASA career, Katherine worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields. Her life and significant contributions were highlighted in a book and later movie, Hidden Figures, with Katherine brilliantly played by actor Taraji P. Henson. Hidden Figures also features the stories of fellow NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
In the words of former NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, Katherine ‘literally wrote the textbook on rocket science.’ “We’re all so fortunate that Katherine insisted on asking questions & on relentlessly pursuing the answers. We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial & gender barriers, she found the courage to say ‘tell them I’m coming.'”
“We’re all so fortunate that Katherine insisted on asking questions & on relentlessly pursuing the answers. We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial & gender barriers, she found the courage to say ‘tell them I’m coming.” – Former NASA Deputy Administrator, Dave Newman
Thank you Katherine Johnson for your overwhelming strength in the face of adversity & for inspiring future generations of young women to follow their dreams to the stars. We hope that we, the next generation, can make you proud, work hard & honour your incredible legacy.
Remember, channel your inner Katherine Johnson & always know that you belong.