Presbyterian mathematician, Medal of Freedom winner Katherine Johnson dies at age 101

A central character in ‘Hidden Figures,’ Johnson was a pioneer in American space history

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician and longtime Presbyterian Katherine Johnson with the Medal of Freedom in 2015 as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on. (Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls)

LOUISVILLE — Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and a longtime Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ruling elder who was an important contributor to NASA’s space program, died Monday at age 101, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced. She was 101.

Johnson, a central figure in the book and movie version of “Hidden Figures,” was a longtime member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom when she was 97. Obama called her “a pioneer in American space history” and noted the award is presented to individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), said that Johnson “lived a life of courage that ought to be emulated by all of us who profess a faith in Jesus Christ.”

“She was a faithful woman with regards to how she understood her own work, that it was directly the grace of God that allowed her to do the things that she was able to do and be able to break the barriers with work that, quite frankly, African American women were not expected to do and deemed as incapable of doing,” Nelson said. “They lived their lives in a way that represented their character during that period of time. That’s what we all have to do.”

“I was blessed to know Katherine Johnson and her family. I was especially honored to serve as pastor to her daughter, Katherine, who shares her name,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “I will continue to hold this family in the light of prayer, and ask that you do the same. The world is forever blessed by the contributions Katherine Johnson made to math, science and the NASA space program.”

A NASA mathematician and aerospace technologist from 1953-86, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from the Mercury launches through the space shuttle program. She was hired as a research mathematician at NASA’s Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that preceded NASA, after the agency opened hiring to African Americans and women.

She exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space and for her 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer, in this case for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

According to her NASA biography, Johnson said her greatest contribution to space exploration involved the calculations that helped synch the Apollo Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. She also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said.

According to her NASA biography, Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918. Her “intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school.”

By age 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a doctorate in mathematics. Johnson graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

When West Virginia decided to integrate its graduate schools in 1939, Johnson and two male students were selected as the first black students to be offered spots in the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. But she soon left school to start a family with her husband, returning to teaching when her three daughters got older.

It wasn’t until 1952 that a relative told her about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at Langley, which was headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Her husband died of cancer in 1956. She married James A. Johnson in 1959.

Following the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, Johnson’s math contributed to the 1958 document “Notes on Space Technology,” a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the nation’s first official foray into space travel.

She was perhaps best known for the work she did in advance of Glenn’s 1962 orbital mission. According to her NASA biography, the complexity of the orbital flight had required the construction of a worldwide communications network, linking tracking stations around the world to computers in Washington, D.C., Cape Canaveral in Florida and Bermuda. The computers had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown. But the Mercury astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts. As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn, like Johnson a Presbyterian, asked engineers to “get the girl” — meaning Johnson — to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.

“If she says they’re good,” Johnson remembers Glenn saying, “then I’m ready to go.”

Johnson “helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space,” Bridenstine said in a statement, “even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space.”

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