Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA

from NYTs

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.

More here.

Posted in Ideas, Innovation, Leadership, Science and tagged , , .


  1. Wow, I true inspiration Mrs. Katherine Johnson and her colleagues. I can’t even imagine what women went through back then, let along women of color. The determination and strength to overcome the dysfunction of society in that era is uncanny. Mrs. Katherine did it with dignity and grace. We today have so much more opportunities allotted to us and we don’t even come close to achieving what Mrs. Johnson and her colleagues have achieved. I am not saying people are not successful, because they most certainly are. What I am saying is society lacks the ambition to strive to reach its full potential through difficult times. A domestic engineer, Human Computer, Mathematician for NASA when resources were so limited truly remarkable. Thank you for your strength as a woman and your contributions to our nation.

  2. Wow, what an inspiration and story Mrs. Johnson is. I am saddened by the fact that the only reason that I have now learned about her is because the fact that she passed away at the age of 101. When you think of NASA, you think of the great ships, astronauts and exploration events. However, the people who are the brains of the operation do not get the acknowledgement and credit they deserve. Katherine Johnson is one of these people, her mathematical brain is one of the main reasons for NASA’s success in the past. Neil Armstrong would not have been able to do his moonwalk and come back to Earth without her help. Armstrong’s name is well known and constantly mentioned in history, but people like Katherine’s are barley mentioned. Katherine Johnson’s name deserves to be mentioned, she is a pioneer and inspiration for all. We constantly give credit to one or two people whose faces were at the forefront. We forget about the people behind the scenes and that it was a team effort. These people are just as valuable and deserve recognition. Mrs. Johnson was working in a time period were woman were not known or viewed to be the smartest or picked for jobs. Johnson was constantly one of the smartest persons in whatever room she was in. Not only was she a women, she was also African American. Johnson started her scientific career during in the age of the Jim Crow laws. However, she never let anything or anyone push her down. Even though she was surrounded by white individuals she was unfazed and felt she belonged. “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority,” Mrs. Johnson said on at least one occasion. “Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.” We can all learn from her, and her belief that she belonged. We can do anything we put our minds to and belong we want to. We are all equal and should believe and be treated as such. Katherine Johnson’s story and work should be told and applauded even though she is no longer with us. This article does a good job of that. May Katherine Johnson rest in peace, she is gone but not forgotten.

  3. Mrs. Johnson was a blessing for Nasa and the United States. Without her, we would have not been able to get Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Without her, who knows what would have happened in the late 60s with the space race. It is sad to learn that someone did what she did and now everyone is just hearing about it because she passed away. She was a true American hero and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by Barack Obama in 2015. And in 2016, the NASA Langley facility at which Johnson worked renamed a building in her honor: the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
    To do what Mrs. Johnson did must have been very challenging because of the period we were in. Not many women had jobs like the one Mrs. Johnson had especially women of color. She broke many barriers and showed how all people can get the job done no matter their race or gender. She helped the first man get to the moon and back safely and she also helped the first man orbit around earth safely and return safely. The equations that she was in charge of checking and forming solutions too could offer dire consequences if she made a mistake everything had to be perfect. The amounts of stress would be overwhelming for most people today and back then, but not with Mrs. Johnson. She is quoted saying, “Every time engineers would hand me their equations to evaluate, I would do more than what they’d asked. I’d try to think beyond their equations. To ensure that I’d get the answer right, I needed to understand the thinking behind their choices and decisions.” She would do everything to the best of her abilities and then some. It is motivational to see what she was able to accomplish and how much dedication she had for mathematics.
    Johnson spent the following years speaking to students about her extraordinary career, encouraging them to pursue STEM education. STEM education is science, technology, engineering, and math. She is quoted in saying, “Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away…There will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.” After her amazing career, she then went on to encourage others to better their education and to focus on the future of technology. Without her who knows where we would be now in the sense of our technological advancements.

  4. Kathrine Johnson’s story is very inspiring especially for me since I have a darker skin complexion and I have felt the struggle of going into interviews, conferences, and networking events and being judged or stereotyped. I remember clearly when Hidden Figures was out when I was in high school. I never got a chance to watch it but I remember it made a big impact the year it was released. I find it insane that she only used a pencil and a slide ruler as her tools to figure out the landing of the moon. I would be lost doing a calculus problem without a calculator. The adversity she had to overcome. Katherine Johnson was getting her education during the Jim Crow laws which must have been hard for her. She was in Virginia which didn’t help around her time being African-American. I find it fascinating that after college she started teaching in a public school instead of pursuing a career in mathematics or going to NASA. She in the future decided to go to graduate school but had to leave to start a family. She most impressive thing is that she just had a bachelors and somehow ended up in NASA with a pencil and a ruler figuring out probably one of the hardest math/physics problems at the time. She broke down many barriers for being one of the few black women who worked at NASA at the time. I believe the article paid homage to Kathrine Johnson and I believe it is well deserved since she probably didn’t get the recognition she should have gotten.

    I really admire that she never let her gender and the color of her skin affect her at all in her workplace. She never thought about it and let it hinder her performance. “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority,” Mrs. Johnson stated. I really admire her skin complexion. Furthermore, I am impressed by NASA and how progressive they were in letting women especially women of color work alongside them. It just shows how women can’t be held down by stereotypes and misconceptions. Women can do a man’s job with no problem and Kathrine Johnson has shown that through her career. In addition, She had children, a husband, and a career so everything can be achieved. She broke down the barrier that women can only do certain jobs and she pushed the movement of gender equality.

    Gender Equality has evolved since the time Kathrine was working for NASA. We have Unicef who vouches and supports gender equality. Laws have been passed like the Equal Pay act in 1963.The Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938. Gender equality has definitely had improved and over the years. One can say that Kathrine Johnson was one of the pioneers of gender equality in the workplace.

  5. The story of Katherine Johnson remind me of the life of Hedy Lamarr. While celebrated by her sexist Hollywood contemporaries, Lamar was unrecognized as a coding genius for many decades, and never able to acquire acclaim for her technological inventions. The difference is that while Lamarr had to deal with sexism in her diverse career paths, Katherine Johnson was forced to combat both sexisms and racism at NASA. Although graduating with a double major as well as with Latin honors, she struggled to find a job suitable to her skill set. It is truly inspiring that this did not deter her. She did not compromise, and eventually found her way into NASA, and precisely at the time of the golden age of space exploration, no less. Her accomplishments at NASA also went uncelebrated for too long, despite the fact that she was instrumental in calculating the propulsion trajectory of several NASA rockets, as well as guiding their return to earth. I suppose that she lived to see some eventual “just deserts” so to speak, as the first African-America president publicly acknowledge her achievements in 2015. Today we remember her, shortly after her passing, and wish her one final and cheerful farewell.

Leave a Reply to Robert Adelson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *