Remembering NASA’s Human Computer

February 28, 2020
Katherine Johnson
Photo Credit: NASA

Before the movie Hidden Figures came out in theaters, few outside of the space industry knew the name Katherine Johnson. Johnson was among a group of brilliant female African American mathematicians who played a significant role in the early success of the US space program. During her almost three-decade long career at NASA, she helped calculate the projections for a number of historic space flights, including one that put the first US astronaut in space and another that helped take astronaut John Glenn on an orbital flight around Earth. Prior to lift off, Glenn famously asked for Johnson to check the trajectory calculations that had been completed by IBM’s electronic calculating machines because he trusted her calculations more than that of an actual computer. (We’d trust her too—after all, she was called a human computer.) Needless to say, Johnson’s calculations helped Glenn successfully orbit Earth, and the rest—as they say—is history.

Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In 2015, President Obama recognized Johnson with a Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian. In 2017, NASA renamed the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. And last year, NASA renamed the street leading up to their headquarters in Washington, DC, Hidden Figures Way, in honor of her, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, the three African American women otherwise known as the West Computers. Katherine Johnson passed away on February 24th at the age of 101, but she will forever be remembered for her contributions toward the advancement of space exploration.